Ed Relf, CEO and founder of Laundrapp, is no stranger to innovative start-ups. After working in digital businesses for years, Ed looked at one of the most antiquated businesses on the high street - launderettes and dry-cleaners - and saw the vast digital gap holding the industry back.
This digital void inspired him to found Laundrapp, and to start a platform revolution in an industry that had not changed its methods or business practices for decades.
"What excites me about start-ups is creating businesses that have the potential to change and disrupt markets. Rarely do people have the opportunity to work on something that really does disrupt a market, and to truly change the lives of their users."
What inspired you to found Laundrapp?
I don't come from a laundry and dry-cleaning background, so I founded Laundrapp from a business perspective. Laundrapp is actually my 4th start-up. I had built a gaming company previously - nothing to do with laundry - but the common thread is that my career has always been digital.
What excites me about start-ups, is creating businesses that have the potential to change and disrupt markets. Rarely do people have the opportunity to work on something that really does disrupt a market, and to truly change the lives of their users.
A huge factor for me to found Laundrapp, was that there was no digital innovation happening at all in the laundry and dry-cleaning sector. I did assume that laundry and dry-cleaning would be a really archaic industry, with an old infrastructure - but it was way worse than I ever imagined. It was predominantly a paper-based process of logistics. If you were lucky, you would be dealing with post-it notes on a wall, and that was the whole of the logistics. It was all very scrappy, so therefore ripe for transformation via digital. And that’s the thing that excites me - the fact that a service like Laundrapp has the potential to actually change consumer habits, and make people’s lives just a little bit easier.
This is one of those opportunities where you look at the market, do your due diligence, and you actually talk to people. And then you realise it's one of those penny drop moments where you say to yourself “Wow, I just can’t believe no one else has actually not done this before”.
I do think timing and luck has a lot to play in this well. I don't believe for a second that this business could have existed if it wasn't for Uber. To an extent, a business like Laundrapp rides in a slipstream of other successful companies like that, and they have done a huge amount to actually educate customers in terms of these types of apps and services. To a certain extent, I still think Laundrapp and services like Laundrapp are slightly ahead of their time.
"We started with the idea of “What does a flawless 30-day experience look like for a brand new customer? Why does a new customer think they need a service like ours? What is the motivation? What does the funnel look like?“
What are the biggest obstacles to growth for businesses in the sharing economy? Are there any limitations on your growth ambitions?
An obstacle we had in the beginning was changing consumer habits and building trust, which was a massive learning curve. With my previous businesses (such as gaming), they were the type of businesses that had already existed before, so people already “got” it. But for many, the concept of a "remote control for your laundry" is quite radical.
We are taking your clothes away from you; and they may be some of your favourite pieces, and/or valuable. Also, we still have that thing where people don’t fully understand what we are doing with their clothes, so there has been a lot of work to build a layer of trust, and change the consumer’s habits.
"The best way of understanding and validating [new initiatives] is to just do it. And that is a guiding principle that we hold on to and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. This is the kind of the reason start-ups exist - they are small and speedy and swift - quick to manoeuvre, and almost fearless. Those guiding principles have been probably some of the major reasons we have been able to just keep pushing in terms of innovation."
What's the key to innovation at Laundrapp?
I think it is a few things. It's the passion, the drive, the honesty, and the humility we have - these are massive drivers of innovation. Also, the fact that we empower individuals as an organisation to make decisions, and not to be fearful of making mistakes; this has been absolutely key for the business.
A good example would be launching bundles and subscriptions - these were innovations that were put out there by an empowered team, with the understanding that we absolutely had no idea of whether it was going to work or not. But, the best way of understanding and validating is to just do it. And that is a guiding principle that we hold on to and will continue to do for the foreseeable future.
This is the kind of reason start-ups exist - they are small and speedy and swift - quick to manoeuvre, and almost fearless. Those guiding principles have been probably some of the major reasons we have been able to just keep pushing in terms of innovation.
And don’t get me wrong, we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we will continue to. Making mistakes is as important, if not more important, than getting it right - the more mistakes we make, the more we learn and improve the service. A lot of people talk about that, but not necessarily a lot of people do it.
"Making mistakes is as important, if not more important than getting it right - the more mistakes we make, the more we learn and improve the service. A lot of people talk about that, but not necessarily a lot of people do it."
How important is getting the technology aspect right as opposed to the culture, people, and organisation?
I don’t believe culture in a company is something that can be manufactured - it is something that grows organically. I’m not a huge fan of putting table tennis in the centre of a room, just for the sake of doing it. There is nothing worse than enforced fun and enforced culture. Culture is not about having AstroTurf on the floor - it’s about empowerment, consistent and transparent leadership, and helping people achieve their career goals. And of course we do off-sites, and all the other things other companies do, but really for me that isn’t necessarily about culture. Culture is about creating an empowering environment, hiring smart people, and allowing them to get on with things.
"Culture is not about having AstroTurf on the floor - it’s about empowerment, and consistent and transparent leadership. And about helping people achieve what they want to achieve in their careers within the confines of the business."
Do you see yourselves as a tech business or as a laundry business?
A tech business. The straight answer is that Laundrapp is a technology platform. The basis of Laundrapp is that it is a technology layer and platform that connects suppliers directly with the customer, essentially bypassing the high street. It just happens that our laundry partners tend to be on the high street, but we work with factories as well. And our tech platform has enabled us to now launch in 100 towns and cities across the UK, at a rate of roughly 2 a week.
The only way we could grow so fast was building it as a technology business first. That doesn't mean however we are not focused on the quality of the cleaning - that is equally as important. Because we are not doing the cleaning ourselves, we are partnering with suppliers that do - and these suppliers have 30-40 years of experience in some instances. We don’t need to change their processes - we just need to give them the technology tools that allow them to connect directly with the customer.
This means we aren’t their competitor, but their partner. These businesses are great at doing the cleaning, but they are not logistics businesses, so we take on that component for them.
Edward Relf is an award winning digital entrepreneur and active angel investor with over 15 years’ experience scaling some of the world's most successful disruptive digital businesses. Having built a successful career through metric driven marketing and digital innovation, Ed now focuses his time on his latest venture Laundrapp (founder & CEO), mentoring and actively investing in the next wave of disruptive tech driven start-ups. Ed has been featured across the likes of the BBC, Guardian, TechCrunch, The Times and other leading news outlets as well as winning dozens of high profile awards for his work through the digital community and driving the next wave of successful British start-ups.