LaunderBot Re-Launch Successful

Founder and MamaBot Susan Becker reports the second go for her wash-and-fold laundry business is going gangbusters.


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Susan Becker found new Alameda partners, and the re-launched LaunderBot business is thriving.

Photo by Ramona d'Viola

LaunderBot was like one of those good dreams you wish you could re-enter after you hit snooze. For a year, busy Alamedans could stuff their dirty togs into an orange bag with a cute robot picture on it, schedule a pickup online, and the next day, each family member’s laundry would be returned, folded and wrapped up in brown paper packages. Then, as if it were too good to be true all along, LaunderBot vanished.

Lots of startup businesses fold. In the same industry, the much-larger Washio disappeared this summer with $13 million of investors’ money. But the story behind LaunderBot’s end was more poignant than venture capital lost: Founder Susan Becker, who signs her emails MamaBot, had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was headed for a tough surgery. A single mother responsible for her two kids half the time, she didn’t know how she was going to navigate regular life through six weeks of recovery, much less wrangle her company through the growing pains it was then experiencing.

Becker had been fighting tough times for a while by then. She’d started the business after losing a job she’d moved across the country for. She and her husband were divorcing. And the bad news kept on coming: Post-surgery, Becker learned that what her doctors had called a noninvasive cancer was in fact invasive and would require chemotherapy and radiation. But Becker took this news in stride.

“If everything in my life had been going really well, it would have derailed me more than it did. It was just one more thing I had to put one foot in front of the other to get through. There was no time for crying about it,” she said recently.

It helped that this dark moment coincided with a business breakthrough: An Alameda couple, Tony and Suzy Arena, had just purchased a laundromat, Pro Coin Laundry, and contacted Becker for advice on launching a wash-and-fold delivery business. Even though she was about to start chemo, Becker struck a deal and re-launched LaunderBot.

“Yes, I had people tell me I was insane,” she said with a laugh during an interview at Julie’s Coffee & Tea Garden, an extension of her home office.

Her new partners, who have been reliable and detail-oriented when other vendors were not, have turned out to be the special sauce for a successful re-launch. Since restarting in January 2016, Becker has built up the business bigger than it was the first time around. Her driver, Jessee Wilson-Grainger, another Alamedan, delivers 1,000 pounds of clean and folded clothing every week.

Because the Arenas, their laundress, and Wilson-Grainger are so reliable, Becker was able to keep her workload minimal during the exhaustion of chemotherapy. Now that she’s through that, Becker is able to put time into growing the business most days, and is now looking to hire a marketing person and expand from Alameda to Oakland. She is also nearing the end of her daily radiation treatments, a milestone that will free up time, and, she expects, leave her feeling better than ever.

“Radiation makes you tired, but it seems like rather than feeling tired every day, I just have one day where I sleep all day. On the days that I’m not sleeping, I’m productive, I feel good, I’m positive—full of awesome,” she said, sounding as if she might be quoting her high-schooler or middle-schooler, both of whom she exchanged texts with during the interview.

Customers—some of whom were among the community members who rallied around her after her surgery, delivering meals and help—are thrilled to have the service back.

“For someone who hates laundry, LaunderBot is a godsend,” one Alamedan gushed on Yelp. Becker has found that her biggest customer base is working parents, some of whom call the service a life-changer.

But with home services startups going out of business right and left—besides Washio, house cleaning service HomeJoy threw in the towel last year—can customers be sure that the LaunderBot will always be at their service?

There are no guarantees in life, but Becker feels she has given herself a solid base via slow and steady growth, the opposite of Washio’s rapid expansion into multiple markets using investor capital.

Becker previously worked in marketing for a tech startup, so at first she thought about soliciting venture capital and commissioning a fancy app. But then she grasped that laundry is not like a software business that you can grow nationwide overnight.

 “You have to nail the customer experience before you worry about the technology,” she realized.

Analyst Mitch Ratcliffe of research firm BIA/Kelsey told the Wall Street Journal as much when he pointed out that building a personal relationship with customers and a reputation for quality are the big challenge for upstarts like Rinse, which bought Washio’s customer base but does not yet serve the Bay Area.

Becker’s way seems to be working out, since the business is modestly profitable already. One mistake of the app economy that Becker has avoided, as she sees it, is bowing to the pressure to make every service “on demand.” LaunderBot pickups are made between 7 and 9 every evening, and the clothes are washed in the Arenas’ closed laundromat during the night and delivered the next day. You can choose the day, not the hour, for your pickup. Before it went out of business, Washio shifted from a similar set-up to an on-demand service, where customers could get their clothes picked up within an hour.

“When you want food, you want it right now. But when it’s something like laundry, it can get picked up this evening,” Becker said.

Becker does have competition, both from local wash-and-fold services that have always been around, and from New York’s WashClub, which has expanded to the Bay Area.

Starting a business is hard enough without having to deal with cells in your body trying to kill you. But Becker eschews the “F-cancer” aggressive view of fighting the disease, and instead embraces a matter-of-fact optimism that probably explains how she is bouncing back so strongly.

“So much about the cancer experience has been such a gift. Everything has happened the way it should have,” Becker concluded.

 

Published online on Jan. 17, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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