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“Let’s, Like, Demolish Laundry”

Click to see a timeline of laundry services

The Suds Cycle
Recent entries in the “laundry space.”

This was the atmosphere Metzner, Dulanto, and Nadler found when they arrived back in the U.S. in 2010 from Buenos Aires, where they’d settled after college and remained while America slumped into the recession. For kids in their early 20s, they had done impressively little screwing around. Dulanto, a Florida State graduate, had opened a juice bar, which is where he met Metzner and Nadler, friends from Indiana University who were opening a place called California Burrito next door. Two years later, Dulanto had opened a second juice bar, and California Burrito was a chain of 14.

But these accomplishments seemed meager when the friends returned to visit their home country. Things were very different from how they’d left them, and, like time travelers, they regarded the changes with awe. “Everyone had a Prius and everyone had an iPhone and everyone had Direct TV, and I was just like, Whoa,” Metzner says one afternoon this spring, sitting in the Washio break room, a sunny space in Santa Monica with an array of snacks and a fridge full of beer. “And I’m not, like, very materialistic at all,” he continues. “Like, I’m not a person who can’t live without my iPhone. But I’m thinking to myself, like, Wow, there’s a lot of life I’m sacrificing to live in this country.” At the time, Argentina’s wet noodle of an economy was foundering. Every day, California Burrito had to readjust prices to keep up with inflation. The conveniences his friends at home took for granted were a far-off dream. “iPhones were like $2,000. We were paying ourselves like $1,200 a month. And I realized that I was missing out on the great luxuries of the American lifestyle.”

Metzner flicks his brown bangs out of his eyes. At 30, he looks exactly like the now-grown-up actor who played the kid brother on Growing Pains, and in fact, he was a child actor of the same era, having starred in commercials and an episode of Tales From the Crypt before realizing that his innate showmanship was better suited to business.

Metzner and Nadler sold California Burrito and moved back home for good. Nadler enrolled in an M.B.A. program at MIT; Metzner went to L.A. and immersed himself in the culture of what a group of young entrepreneurs were calling Silicon Beach. He acquired a Prius, an iPhone, and a day job at a company that handles payments for video games; meanwhile, he went looking for opportunities in the tech space. It all went back to the iPhone, he realized. He may have been able to live without it before, but it was about to become indispensable.

“This thing, it’s alive,” he says now, holding up his phone. “It knows the weather, it knows what you like to eat, it knows your location, it knows what you like to buy.” He was particularly fascinated with the on-demand car service Uber, which was quickly building an empire on the back of smartphones. “We’re just going to see more and more businesses that we never would have seen before that exist on the premise that everyone has one of these in their pocket,” he says. “It’s like [Marc] Andreessen said. Software is eating the world.”

The question was, what areas of commerce remained undigested?

Metzner scoured TaskRabbit, the website on which the broke and eager underbid one another for the chance to do tasks for the moneyed and lazy, to see what services were most in demand. A lot of people, it turned out, wanted someone to do their laundry. “That spoke to me,” says Metzner, whose father sells discount clothing to retailers like T.J. Maxx and bestows on him a great deal of overflow, a luxury that inevitably becomes a burden. “I hate doing laundry,” Metzner says. “It’s my worst.”

That was one thing Argentina had over the U.S., he told Dulanto, who had sold his juice bars and was crashing on Metzner’s couch. The lavanderias. “These women would just stay there all day and do laundry, and your clothes smell incredible, they fold them perfectly, they package them perfectly.”

What if, Metzner proposed to Dulanto, they started a service where people could order their laundry picked up and delivered on their smartphones? Kind of like, he said, “the Uber of laundry?”

Of course, they wouldn’t have to actually do the washing. That they would outsource: to wholesalers, maybe, the types of cleaners used by hotels. They’d charge $1.60 a pound, and though they’d lose part of the margin, they could avoid the costs of rent and expensive machinery. And if they hired drivers on the Uber model—people who used their own cars and their own phones—there would be no need to buy and maintain vehicles. They’d just be the middleman, organizing the transaction and taking a slice of the ­profit—which, admittedly, was not huge with wash-and-fold. But once they had the laundry, the dry-cleaning would follow. Profits are higher on dry-cleaning, because who knows what dark alchemy is required to remove stains? No one, and everyone is willing to pay a premium to stay ­uninformed. The trick was to think big: “That’s where the numbers become exciting,” Metzner says. “Let’s do it in 50, 60 cities,” he told Dulanto. “Let’s literally go into every market.”