With over 15 years of experience working for tech startups and a self-proclaimed “digital disruptor, entrepreneur, investor, marketer,” Ed Relf didn’t expect to be the CEO of what is essentially a logistics company.
Speaking to Techworld with a sigh and a sideways laugh he explains: “We always knew we would build a platform business, we didn’t have any aspirations to build a logistics company, but that’s kind of what we’ve done, and that’s fine.”
Yet clearly there are some days where Relf feels like he may have bitten off more than he can chew: “Knowing what I know now, goodness me, would I ever do this business? I don’t know. There’s so many layers of complexity that you wouldn’t believe,” he says.
No wonder Relf seems flustered. The speed at which Laundrapp has grown is unprecedented, even within the fast-moving tech startup ecosystem. Laundrapp launched in March 2014 and will soon be serving 50 UK towns and cities, as Relf exclusively shared with Techworld.
This speed appears to have led to some issues, as a poor ranking from UK consumer review site Trustpilot will attest. Ironically, Relf believes that the bigger the company gets, the easier it becomes. According to Relf: “Logistically it becomes a hell of a lot easier.”
His ambition hasn’t been tapered by the bumps in the road so far though, telling Techworld: “My aspiration for this company is to build the world’s largest direct-to-consumer laundry and dry-cleaning brand and it’s as simple as that.”
Relf doesn’t plan to take the brand international yet but he does see the capability to dominate the European market: “The way that we built the platform is we built to scale and internationalise from day one. We could launch internationally literally today if we wanted to,” he says.
How does it work?
Relf refers to Laundrapp as “a remote control for your laundry” as the app allows customers to outsource their laundry within two or three touches.
The app lets you order a laundry collection from your home or office, seven days a week from 7am-10pm, and then have it returned whenever is convenient for you. The app charges £2.50 per kg of laundry or £2 per item for dry cleaning, including an ironing service.
Laundrapp uses large out-of-town industrial cleaning facilities, much like high-street dry cleaners do. “We’ve just gone direct to the source," Relf explains.
Using these large partners gives Laundrapp more resilience when it comes to the supply chain. This is especially important when issues arise, like when a World War II bomb was uncovered at one of their facilities, closing down operations for two days.
Naturally, Laundrapp is often referred to as the Uber of laundry, and although he admits that the comparison is tiresome, Relf sees the benefit when it comes to explaining how the app works for the consumer.
Laundrapp has three platforms that were all built in-house: the consumer app, drive and pulse. Pulse is the logistics platform and drive is the Uber part, giving Laundrapp’s fleet of drivers step-by-step instructions for collections and deliveries. The hidden benefit of the drive platform is that it gives Relf real-time vehicle tracking.
Relf does recognise the impact Uber has had on consumer habits, to his own benefit: “This business could not have existed two or three years ago, companies like Uber and Deliveroo have paved the way to the whole on-demand and sharing economy market and it is extraordinary,” he says.
Laundrapp isn’t so much converting traditional customers of laundry services to its app, but rather riding the wave of a new type of time-poor consumer that is comfortable transacting online. “A high percentage of the customers that use Laundrapp aren’t people that typically used high-street launderettes or dry cleaners before,” Relf explains.
There is already a well-worn narrative around Laundrapp (and many of the sharing economy apps it shares a market with) as being born from the realisation that the high-street laundry industry hadn’t yet been digitised, as fast food had been by the likes of Just Eat and Deliveroo, but Relf is ready to expand on that.
Relf explains that what really inspired him to start the business was his anger at being quoted different prices every time he walked into his local dry cleaners. A lack of transparent pricing has already driven disruption in the taxi and property industries, and this was a driving force behind Relf setting up the business, “which is why, from day one, we built the technology to have a standardised price,” Relf says.
Death of the high street
One thing Laundrapp isn’t doing is saving the high-street laundromat or family run dry cleaners. Relf explains: “We initially started with the aggregated style model, but we realised really quickly that it was better working with the much larger facilities, that had a bit more capacity to scale, and then leave us to do the logistics.
“The problem we had when you go direct to the high street is that they are not logistics companies. Their logistics is limited to text messages and a few post-it notes on the wall. What we did was take over all of the logistics.”
Relf admits that there is a possibility Laundrapp could follow Amazon’s example in the coming years, namely by opening its platform out to third-party laundromats and dry cleaners. These small firms would benefit from gaining access to a larger audience and Laundrapp’s logistics network, much like Amazon did with the launch of Amazon Marketplace. He leaves the option open: “Who knows, we have lots of discussions around that sort of stuff,” he says.
One advantage of building out a complex and robust logistics network, Relf is discovering, is that the company can expand into different areas. As Relf puts it: “The technology and the way the technology has been built we could effectively sell or service anything.” However, don’t expect Laundrapp to start delivering ice cream: “We haven’t extended it beyond [laundry] because we don’t want to dilute that to be honest. Beyond that I don’t predict any really radical stuff."
Laundrapp acquired rival company Washbox last year but Relf says it was opportunistic rather than strategic: “That was a relatively small-scale acquisition, it was an acquihire actually, they are a talented bunch of guys. Do we need to do it going forward? Probably not.”
Laundrapp completed its last funding round in March 2015, raising £4 million from ICAP founder Michael Spencer and Sports Direct chief executive Jeff Blue to support its rapid UK expansion. Relf sees 2016 as more of the same, expanding on brand awareness and focusing on building out to the regions, “and then obviously we have aspirations for international when the time is right.”
Whatever happens, Relf will be the one in the driving seat.