There was a problem with the cookies.
When Jordan Metzner and Juan Dulanto launched Washio, it had already distinguished itself from other laundry and dry-cleaning services. There was no storefront, no rotating rack, no little pieces of paper to keep track of. Customers ordered their clothing picked up via the website or a mobile app, and it was returned to them not in a tangle of WE ❤ OUR CUSTOMERS hangers but in sleek black bags marked with the Washio logo, an understated silhouette of a shirt collar. The company called the drivers who completed these deliveries, usually in 24 hours’ time, “ninjas.” Still, the founders wanted to make sure their business stood out from the competition—that Washio established itself as the washing and dry-cleaning service by and for the convenience-loving, whimsy-embracing millennials of the New Tech Boom. “So we came up with the cookies,” says Metzner.
Inspired by Silicon Valley guru Paul Graham’s seminal essay to “do things that don’t scale,” they sourced cookies from bakeries in their three markets—snickerdoodles in San Francisco, frosted red velvet in L.A., classic chocolate chip in Washington, D.C.—which the ninja delivered, wrapped, along with the freshly laundered clothing. The gesture added another logistical wrinkle to an already complicated business, but it was worth it. “In the beginning, people loved it,” says Metzner. “Our social media went crazy, like, ‘Oh my God, Washio is the best!’ ”
That was in the beginning.
One Wednesday morning this spring, after staff at Washio had gathered for their daily “stand-up” meeting—a ritual suggested in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, a 2001 work-processes manual that advocates keeping employees on their toes by having them give status updates literally on their feet—operations manager Sam Nadler broke some bad news. “Actually,” he said, “we’re starting to get a lot of requests for healthy treats instead of cookies.”
Ha, well, of course they were. Entitlement is a straight line pointing heavenward, and it should come as no surprise to Washio, where business is based on human beings’ ever-increasing desires, that their customers were upping the ante yet again.
Remember the scrub board? One imagines people were thrilled when that came along and they could stop beating garments on rocks, but then someone went ahead and invented the washing machine, and everyone had to have that, followed by the electric washing machine, and then the services came along where, if you had enough money, you could pay someone to wash your clothes for you, and eventually even this started to seem like a burden—all that picking up and dropping off—and the places offering delivery, well, you had to call them, and sometimes they had accents, and are we not living in the modern world? “We had this crazy idea,” says Metzner, “that someone should press a button on their phone and someone will come and pick up their laundry.”
So Washio made it thus. For a while, this was pleasing. But in the hubs and coastal cities of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and San Francisco—especially San Francisco—new innovations are dying from the day they are born, and laundry delivered with a fresh-baked cookie is no longer quite enough. There’s a term for this. It’s called the hedonic treadmill.
Fortunately, the employees of Washio are on their toes. “What if we did bananas?” Nadler suggested. Everyone laughed.
Metzner held up a small brown bag featuring a silhouette of a flower and a clean lowercase font. “I’ve been talking to the CEO of NatureBox,” he said. “It’s like a Birchbox for healthy treats. Every month they send you nuts and …”
“Banana chips?” said Brittany Barrett, whose job as Washio’s community manager includes cookie selection. Everyone laughed, again.
Metzner looked down at the bag. “Flax crostini,” he said. “I think it’s a much better value proposition than a cookie.” He looked at the bag again. “What is a flax crostini?”
We are living in a time of Great Change, and also a time of Not-So-Great Change. The tidal wave of innovation that has swept out from Silicon Valley, transforming the way we communicate, read, shop, and travel, has carried along with it an epic shit-ton of digital flotsam. Looking around at the newly minted billionaires behind the enjoyable but wholly unnecessary Facebook and WhatsApp, Uber and Nest, the brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems. The marketplace of ideas has become one long late-night infomercial. Want a blazer embedded with GPS technology? A Bluetooth-controlled necklace? A hair dryer big enough for your entire body? They can be yours! In the rush to disrupt everything we have ever known, not even the humble crostini has been spared.