Rinse is a rapidly growing laundry and dry-cleaning startup that is trying to become the first nationally scaled company in what has always been a very local business. Started by James Joun and Ajay Prakash, the startup is freeing us from drudgery–so long as you’re in a big American city or possibly Paris, where one of their backers lives–while providing cleaner clothes. From 8 to 10 p.m., seven nights a week, Rinse will gather your dirty laundry and dry cleaning, and then, 24 to 72 hours later, deliver it in that same window.
Having raised more than $23 million, Rinse has gone beyond its San Francisco home base to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Boston; soon it will be in New York City.
Once customers establish a Rinse account, they request a pickup via text, phone app, or website, and choose scented or unscented detergents, dryer temperatures, and the handling they want–wash and fold, or wash and hang dry. Rinse then farms out the actual cleaning, sometimes to a local shop, but more often to a commercial operation that meets its stringent specs. The cleaned clothes are then returned to Rinse and sorted for delivery.
To you, it’s sweaty shirts. To Rinse, it’s more complex. The company handles tens of thousands of pounds of laundry daily–which means solving a multidimensional logistics puzzle.
Customers separate their wash into bags, which valets retrieve every night between 8 and 10 p.m. Route maps are planned by a proprietary algorithm for maximum efficiency. Valets return to a warehouse, where Rinse distributes the clothes to dozens of cleaning partners on the basis of their location and capacity. Ideally, customers have the same cleaning partner every time.
At Oakland’s Express Laundry, workers arrive around 2 a.m. Overhead cameras record them sorting darks and lights and flagging high-risk garments to avoid washing dry-clean-only items. Each customer’s clothes are washed separately–no mixing with your neighbors’–in machines that spin more than three times as fast as household models and compress the wash-and-dry cycle to 45 minutes.
Cleaned clothing is delivered by Rinse’s partners to its operations center, where it’s logged and sorted. Valets then deliver those clothes according to the Rinse algorithm’s route, in the same two-hour evening window as the pickup, and log each delivery in their smartphones. Valets can also leave the bags on doorsteps, in garages, or elsewhere, and take a photo of the dropped bag before departing.
Its prices are competitive with local shops: Wash and fold is $1.75 a pound (with a 15-pound minimum); a dress shirt costs $2.50 to launder; dry cleaning a suit costs $16. Standard delivery is $3.99. (Prices do not vary by city yet.)
And you don’t have to be home when Rinse delivers: Valets can drop the bag by your door, or garage, or in your apartment hallway, and then take a picture of the dropped bag to confirm delivery. Somebody else does your dirty work, to your specifications, for a good price. Who wouldn’t want that?
Laundry doesn’t ask for much: It just wants to be cleaned. It piles up in a hamper or basement until, once a week or so, it demands attention. That’s not the only reason Rinse, Cleanly, 2ULaundry, and others sense something big. It seems inevitable that a service that almost everyone might want would attract entrepreneurs. But inevitable has not translated to successful. Scaling something as personal as laundry–and delivering it on schedule–has proved difficult. There’s already a laundry list (sorry) of failures: The biggest washout was Washio, which raised nearly $17 million from the likes of Ashton Kutcher and Nas before circling the drain. (Rinse absorbed Washio’s customer list.)
Rinse, Cleanly, and 2ULaundry, having broken out of their home turfs, are studying the map for their next opportunities. Rinse is eyeing Houston and Dallas. 2ULaundry aims to spread through the Southeast, perhaps to Miami. At presstime, Cleanly, now in San Francisco and D.C., was nearing a $15 million to $20 million funding round to underwrite a significant expansion.
There’s a bit of a trojan horse strategy developing too. If you are a Rinse or Cleanly or 2ULaundry customer, you have given these companies permission to enter your home. What else can they offer? Rinse and Cleanly are collecting tons of data about what their customers buy and wear–both photograph all dry-cleaned items. Craig, Rinse’s VC and adviser, suggests the company could “have the largest collection of data in consumer wardrobes”–so “we could help brands and retailers sell into your closet.”
That’s either very creepy or very helpful to you and the companies that want shelf space in your closet. This closet play is predicated on Rinse’s having a national footprint. So are mom-and-pop dry cleaners doomed? Not necessarily: The best will be partners to the new national brands. Assuming, of course, Rinse and its rivals have the right formula to win business from the rest of us–the great unwashed.
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