Meet the entrepreneur who wants to wash your dirty knickers

Ed Relf's 'Uber for laundry' has raised more than £4m to take on the humble washing machine.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 18 May 2016

From taxis to takeaways, start-ups have used online tech to reinvigorate entire industries in the last few years. What Uber has done for transport and Just Eat has done for food, Laundrapp wants to do for the admittedly less sexy field of washing clothes.

Customers book a slot with the start-up’s app and then their clothes are collected by a delivery driver, who returns them a few days later after they’ve been cleaned. Officially launched in January, the company has since raked in a hefty £4m investment, notched up 175,000 app downloads and washed around 700,000 garments. CEO Ed Relf launched the business on the suggestion of the firm’s now-chairman, Dominic Perks.

‘I think the penny-drop moment really was when I walked down my local high street where I live in north London and realised that every single one of these businesses had been revolutionised by digital in one form or another - whether it’s the bank or the bookmaker or the supermarket,’ Relf tells MT. ‘I got to the dry cleaner on the corner and realised, "goodness me, actually there’s a massive opportunity here".’

'I tend to spend most of my days smashing up washing machines,' Relf admits 

Relf has spent a lot of time building tech companies but had no prior experience in the world of laundry, so he had to do his research. ‘It’s incredibly unscientific but...I walked into a couple of local dry cleaners and quizzed them,’ he says. ‘I asked them lots of questions about their current systems, how they operate, how they’re transacting and tracking orders.’

Finding inconsistencies in the prices charged by some high-street dry cleaners added fuel to his fire. ‘There was an opportunity here not only to bring their services to the doorstep, but also just to add a layer of visibility to and transparency to the industry,’ he says.

He admits that getting things off the ground was, ‘bloody hard. I’ve been through this three or four times now and it’s not always been successful. With any entrepreneur there’s always a string of failures before you hit on any form of success.’

Relf compares Laundrapp’s business model to that of the takeaway firm Deliveroo. The company employs its own fleet of drivers (‘we consider them "agents" – they’re ambassadors of the company’) but the cleaning itself is outsourced to 40 different suppliers.

‘We’re not cleaning experts, we’re technologists and operational experts, so we partner with people,’ he says. ‘These businesses tend to be family businesses, they’ve been in the market for decades.’

Though some existing dry cleaning companies do already offer collection and delivery, it’s mainly something that’s done over the phone or through a clunky website, rather than an app.

Laundrapp faces more direct competition from Zipjet, a start-up backed by Germany’s Rocket Internet that launched in London last October. But Zipjet is currently only available in central and south-west London, whereas Laundrapp’s reach extends to 25 towns and cities, including Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester.

‘The other massive competitor we all have is the washing machine,’ Relf adds. ‘Getting people to not use the washing machine and use an on demand service like this, that’s ultimately the opportunity here. It isn’t to get people to not go to their local dry cleaner, because on the whole people tend to not do that much dry cleaning.’

Relf’s not willing to talk financials but says the business has been growing a double-digit percentage every month and washes one garment every ten seconds. The firm employs around 100 drivers across the country as well as 25 office staff.

While he says there are no imminent plans for an overseas launch, he says that 2016 will 'probably be a good time to internationalise'. Make of that what you will. 'There's no reason Laundrapp couldn't become, not only the UK's largest laundry and dry cleaning brand, but certainly Europe's if not the world's,' he adds.   

It might be growing fast but at the moment Laundrapp currently has a score of just 2 out of 5 on the reviews site, Trustpilot. Is it suffering from a few teething problems?

‘The thing with any on-demand business that has a component of logistics, is that logistics is just bloody hard to do,’ Relf admits. ‘There are so many things that can impact on us getting that delivery to you on time.’ And let’s be honest, most of us can’t be bothered to leave a review if a service has been satisfactory.

‘If we didn’t have teething problems then this would probably have been too easy and somebody would probably have done it already,’ he adds. ‘The fact that we and other start-ups come across these issues, it’s actually because we’re creating something new, we’re pioneering.’

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