Laundry can be at the center of planning for the future of cities.
Tumble, a San Francisco-based laundry startup, has raised $7 million in seed capital to upgrade coin-operated laundry machines, the company announced Wednesday.
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The financing was led by Virginia-based angel investment group Hivers and Strivers, with additional participation from Array Ventures, Western Technology Investment and ZagCapital.
“I think technology really hasn’t permeated this industry for that long because of the ‘if-don’t-break-it-don’t-fix’ [mindset] and the overall feel of it isn’t interesting,” said CEO and founder Scott Patterson. “In reality, this is a huge industry that touches everyone’s life in one way or another.”
What Tumble does
Tumble is a hardware and software platform that aims to upgrade the coin operated laundry machines found in most apartment buildings. Its hardware solutions replace or connect parts of the washing machine, making it possible to lock the machine so that it can only be opened by whoever loaded it, or to carry out the vast majority of repairs remotely by restarting the machine. The software platform enables cashless payment and shows how many machines are currently available.
The startup is working with a handful of apartment buildings, and the fresh funding will go toward scaling the company and integrating its tools into more apartment buildings.
Tumble is also launching a laundry delivery service at its San Francisco headquarters, which it plans to expand to other US cities.
Tumble enters a very small and very antiquated industry dominated by coin-operated laundromats. According to Coin Laundry Association CEO Brian Wallace, while laundromats are starting to accept mobile payments, 59% of them are still using coins as their only payment method because it’s cheaper. New technology companies looking to refresh the space can eat into a laundromat’s razor-thin profit margins.
That hasn’t stopped startups from trying.
The delivery model for urban centers
So far in 2022, laundry startups have received a meager $52 million in funding, mostly for laundry delivery services like SudShare, which raised $10 million in seed funding for its Gig Work-powered, app-based laundry delivery service in March. Another, Loopie, offers a similar on-demand laundry service model.
These types of startups saw their heyday in 2015 when the laundry startup industry raised a record $157 million in venture capital. Coincidentally, 2015 was also the year Uber was its most profitable — the company also launched its self-driving car initiative and launched Uber Eats in the same year.
I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that these laundry service startups received most of their funding in the wake of Uber’s success. Eventually, the most productive gig work company gave way to all sorts of industries using some form of gig work. But laundry funding slowly dwindled to $58.6 million in 2020, before experiencing a small resurgence in 2021 (it should also be noted that some of the biggest startups in this space, like Rinse and Cleanly, achieved a W2 -Use model to keep workers).
Much like Uber doesn’t own its cars, many of the startups don’t own the laundromats they use. But Patterson said a more efficient laundry model could allow cities to use valuable real estate in dense urban environments more effectively.
Most washing machines in laundromats go unused for most of the day. Meanwhile, apartment buildings are crammed into a machine family where another dwelling unit could fit.
“In a world where we’re talking about decarbonization and more efficient building practices, this is the future we’ll be looking for,” Patterson said. “How can we automate things and just get rid of those parts of our lives that we don’t need to spend time on? And how can we build and view cities more efficiently?”
Opportunities for automation
Much like former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick viewed Uber as the first step in creating infrastructure to support self-driving cars, Patterson sees the same thing about Tumble’s emerging laundry technology and delivery service.
By leveraging data from laundries and their on-demand delivery service, laundry service startups like Rinse and Tumble can potentially scale and offer delivery services with a much faster turnaround time than your average wash and fold service. Once this marketplace is created, the whole process could be fully automated.
“Anything that’s dangerous, dirty, or boring is automatically removed,” Patterson said. “And where better to wash laundry than in these rooms that already exist, everywhere in the metropolitan areas, right next to the consumers?”
Figure: Dom Guzman
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