While their competitors were elbowing one another in Silicon Valley, FlyCleaners had been scouring Silicon Alley for a team as tough and experienced as the founders themselves. Among its recruits was Brian Tiemann, a software engineer from Bridgewater Capital, the world’s largest hedge fund. “You were expecting laundry machines,” Tiemann intones from behind the Star Trek–like array of screens, when I enter FlyCleaners’ Flatiron offices on a recent visit. Blond and bespectacled, Tiemann is that rare breed of tech nerd who took a job at a hedge fund not for the money but because of the technological opportunities it afforded. From the looks of him, he doesn’t know from fabric softener, but he enjoys the logistics of getting laundry and dry-cleaning all the places it needs to go. Squinting at the screen, Tiemann types in a command, enabling a driver to avoid a traffic jam on North 6th Street in Williamsburg.
In New York, hiring drivers on Washio’s Uber-inspired model wasn’t an option. FlyCleaners had to use trucks, and because of the traffic and narrow streets, the trucks had to be efficient. They built racks for laundry bags, and Tiemann, whose hobby is pimping out cars for the Bullrun, the annual race in which billionaires in souped-up vehicles race each other cross-country, outfitted each one with a tablet that provides drivers with order details, alternate traffic routes, selective streaming from accident-mapping services, and direct communication with headquarters. With guys like this at the controls, mom-and-pops don’t stand a chance. “That’s the idea,” Tiemann says grimly, sinking back into his screens.
Team Washio was intent on staying in first place. Mokhtarzada began mobilizing the troops, and over the next few weeks, Metzner would be in his office, leading the stand-up meeting or evaluating the skills of a ninja interviewee, when he’d feel a ping in his pocket signifying an email from Shervin Pishevar, cc-ing him on a pitch to Jerry Yang, or Scooter Braun, or Nas. “The craziest one on the email chain,” Metzner recalls, “was Kanye.”
The next thing he knew, Metzner was at Ashton Kutcher’s house, presenting him with the idea of an Uber for laundry. “Mila [Kunis] was there,” he says. “She made snacks.” Kutcher’s investment through A Grade, his partnership with Ron Burkle, helped bring Washio’s total funding to $3.6 million. (“We were most impressed with Jordan as a founder,” the Two and a Half Men star said in a statement emailed by a representative. “With trends and consumers all leaning towards a [sic] increased level of connivence [sic] Jordan has targeted a new vertical that we believe in.”)
In Silicon Valley, where The Work of creating The Future is sacrosanct, the suggestion that there might be something not entirely normal about this—that it might be a little weird that investors are sinking millions of dollars into a laundry company they had been introduced to over email that doesn’t even do laundry; that maybe you don’t really need engineers to do what is essentially a minor household chore—would be taken as blasphemy. Outside mecca, though, there are still moments of lucidity.
Sitting in an upscale pizza restaurant in Santa Monica, the kind of place where the cuisine has been disrupted so many times it has pretty much reverted to its original state, Metzner takes a breath. “It’s always easy to say in hindsight?” he says. “But in the middle of it, you can’t really tell if you are in a bubble or if you are just in a successful time. Because, like, Facebook went out and paid $19 billion for WhatsApp. That actually happened.”
The waitress brings him a beer. “People with money are going to figure out ways to invest their money to make more money,” he says. “If you look at finance, like when credit-default swaps were huge, right, everyone was investing in that. And when subprime was huge, people were investing in that. Now, it’s Silicon Valley.” He looks up at the television above the bar, which is showing the Lakers game across town. A shot of Ashton and Mila, sitting courtside, appears onscreen. The chyron informs us they are engaged. Metzner tips his beer toward them in congratulations. He’s not worried. “It’s like Vegas,” he says. “The excitement of winning far exceeds the downside of losing.”
A few months after Washio landed in San Francisco, Prim, the Y Combinator start-up, folded. In an interview, the founders gave several reasons, among them increased competition for and with vendors.
Asked if he thinks Washio had anything to do with its demise, Metzner smirks.
“That’s one down,” Mokhtarzada told him.
And on my last morning in the Washio offices, Metzner is still feeling confident. “I think we have established ourselves as the clear market leader,” he says, draping his arm casually over the sofa. Washio’s Washington, D.C., launch had gone well. The company had brought on a Ph.D. in mathematics to work on its routing systems, and a group of Harvard undergrads was helping refine the ninja hiring system. More excitingly, Kutcher had gone on Jimmy Kimmel Live and talked up the company. “It was surreal,” Metzner says.
Not long ago, a friend of Nadler’s brought back a flier from South Africa advertising a company with a logo similar to Washio’s. And the previous night, Nadler had pulled him aside to show him the app for Dryv, Chicago’s Uber of Laundry. Their logo: a hanger, in silhouette. “It’s survival of the fittest,” says Metzner. “Eventually, these guys who think they can mimic will get frustrated, and they will go away.”
But these are times of great change. The hedonic treadmill keeps its steady pace, creating new desires, new niches, new competitors. In the coming weeks, the Laundry Chute, a Palm Beach–based start-up catering to college students, will raise $100,000 in seed funding. An on-demand laundry app called Cleanly, launched in New York last year, will expand operations, and one called MintLocker, which offers its customers cupcakes, will start up in Vegas. “Every day you see another one,” says Arik Levy of Laundry Locker, which itself has embraced delivery and is partnering with Deliv to provide a service similar to Washio’s. “Although,” he adds, “ours is about 25 percent cheaper.” He’ll have to contend with Brinkmat, the victor of the first laundry wars, which was acquired by Delivery.com and is now doing business under the much simpler laundry.delivery.com. Even the fogies are innovating: Zips, a discount dry-cleaner franchise, is developing an app that lets you watch your garment get cleaned using high-resolution cameras.
In Santa Monica, it’s time for lunch. Metzner flicks his bangs and goes to look for his assistant. As he leaves, I notice the screen on someone’s computer is opened to a website featuring a gigantic picture of a chocolate-chip cookie. Not an ordinary chocolate-chip cookie. It’s a chocolate-chip cookie shaped like a shot glass and filled with milk, the latest creation of noted baked-goods disrupter Dominique Ansel. “The best dessert ever,” the website, Sploid, enthuses in the headline. For now.