Successful Laundry Owners Share the Best – And Worst – Business Advice They’ve Ever Received
“In life, you need many more things besides talent. Things like good advice and common sense.” – Hack Wilson, Major League Baseball Player from 1923-1934
“No enemy is worse than bad advice.” – Sophocles, Ancient Greek Playwright
Laundry owners are an independent lot. After all, that’s what entrepreneurship is all about. But, then again, everyone needs a little advice now and then – even laundromat operators.
At times, you just may not have the skills, experience or time to solve a certain a problem. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel each time you encounter an obstacle. Most likely, someone else has already done most of the heavy lifting for you.
As a result, this month, we reached out to some of the most successful store owners in the business and asked them to share the best – and worst – business advice they’ve ever received:
Queen City Laundry
Best Advice: Focus on serving and helping others, and everything else will take care of itself.
Early on in my career, I was very ambitious for selfish reasons. As I’ve grown and found success, I’ve discovered that giving back and serving others is much more rewarding than simply earning money. Ironically, I’ve learned that the more I focus on serving others, the more money I make.
Worst Advice: It’s impossible to be successful if you start out poor.
I always felt that was an excuse and an entitled mentality. I never believed it for one second, and it’s a good thing I didn’t. I grew up in Flint, Mich., and was born very poor. I’m honored to say that I’ve proven that theory to be dead wrong – through hard work and a passion for knowledge and information. In fact, my favorite quotation is: “You can get anything you want in life, if you will only help others get what they want, too.”
Best Advice: So many things have shaped my business decisions over the years, from college classes and mentors to seminars and books. If I had to choose just one, it would be the advice I received from the book “The E-Myth Revisited,” by Michael Gerber. In his book, he outlines the need for a business owner to build systems detailing every aspect of the operations of his or her business – an operations manual, if you will.
Once clear systems are in place and tested, it is the responsibility of the owner to begin replacing themselves for each of the jobs required to run their business, starting with the easiest. In this way owners can better leverage their time, spending less of it working in the business and more of it working on the business.
Eventually, the goal is to be able to engineer your way out of doing the work and just overseeing the operations. This gives you what I like to call “time freedom,” and with that, you can spend your days doing the things you want to do, instead of the tasks you have to do. Today, we are able to manage our small chain of six laundromats from anywhere in the world.
Worst Advice: This may seem odd, but when we first were deciding to enter into business ownership, we were warned not to buy a laundromat because it was too dangerous – having a cash business is just a target to thieves, so the thinking went.
This “advice” came from someone who never actually owned a vended laundry, but had friends who had been robbed at their store. And, in fact, while we were looking for our first location, there was an owner who recently had been killed in his store in Oakland. This certainly gave us concern for our safety. And, while any business can be a target, one could make the case of increased risk for self-service laundries.
Yet, to me, this was bad advice, because it isn’t the investment that is risky, but rather the investor. Needless to say, we didn’t follow that advice. Instead, we used it to implement strategies to reduce the risk.
For us, the solution was to consider stores located only in areas we felt comfortable walking around after 10:00 p.m. We also make sure that there are plenty of video surveillance cameras visible, as well as ample staff members around to help the customers and keep an eye on things. When collecting, we use different vehicles, come at different times and on different days on somewhat of a random pattern.
Over the years, we have further reduced our risk by offering credit/debit card payment options in addition to cash to reduce the amount of cash on site at any given time.
At the end of the day, we are so grateful for this business and the opportunities it has provided for our family.
Red Robin Laundry
Best Advice: This was from a man for whom I managed several properties: shoot for the best customer you can find, and make sure that every one of them is treated as the best – then you will be at a level where you are the best. Become an expert at customer service, and make it your No. 1 objective. Stand out from your competition, and the competition will disappear.
In the laundry business, understand that customers will always judge you based on what they see in their finished product, on their experiences and interactions, and on their feelings as they walk out the door – which will determine whether or not they will return.
Bruce E. Rocha, Sr.
Best Advice: Don’t be afraid to increase your prices when your costs go up. Your customers will understand that you must increase prices to maintain a relevant business.
It was the best advice because there was a lot of pressure from my employees and customers not to increase prices. They felt I would lose business. However, following that advice helped me, because now I am able to afford to increase wages, which builds loyalty with employees, and I also can afford to upgrade my equipment, which makes my customers happy. Further, I have a stronger bottom line, because I work on a percentage of my costs; so, as costs and prices rise, I make more money and am not impacted by inflation.
Worst Advise: I was told not to bring a drycleaning service into my laundromat. I heeded this advice for 10 years and lost out on opportunities to increase my profits.
After a decade, I eventually entered into an agreement with a quality drycleaning company. This move increased my sales both through the drycleaning service, as well as through increased wash-dry-fold business.
C&C Coin Laundry
Best Advice: Make certain there is enough lighting in the laundromat, ensure that the windows are not cluttered with signage and other items so that my customers can see outside, and to keep the machines maintained and the place clean.
Worst Advice: This occurred during the design phase of building my laundromat. My store wasn’t designed to include extra-large-capacity washers or dryers, so now – unless I start over – I can never upgrade to 50- and 70-pound machines – which is a major disadvantage these days.
Rush City, Minn.
Best Advice: One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to convert to full-cycle pricing on our dryers. It brought in more income and completely eliminated dryer complaints.
I’ll also add that there are a few clichés out there, which are really solid advice that I continue to heed today:
• “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
• “You get what you pay for.”
• “Location, location, location…”
Worst Advice: “Stay open 24 hours.” Nothing good happens after midnight.
Sunshine Laundry Centers
Vero Beach, Fla.
I can’t really think of any bad advice I’ve received. I probably did receive some bad advice over the years, but I hope I instinctively recognized it as bad and just automatically rejected it. However, as far as the best advice I ever received, I have two instances that stand out.
Best Advice: The first piece of great advice was from a man who owned an automotive repair company. He was trying to build his business, but kept finding himself underneath the hood of a car with a wrench in his hand. A friend of his told him to put a lock on his tool box, move the tool box to the far end of the garage, and then put the key to that lock in a hard-to-reach area.
That way, every time he said to himself, “Oh, this repair job will only take 10 minutes” – and, of course, would always take longer – he would have all that time walking to get the key to the lock and then walking to get to the tool box to think about it. Along the way, he would come to his senses and hand off the repair job to another mechanic in his garage. Sound familiar?
I used to do that all the time when starting out in the laundry business. I would justify my time as mechanic by saying, “Well, I’m saving the company X-amount of dollars doing it myself, rather than paying a mechanic.” This was shortsighted, because my time spent fixing a washer or dryer kept me from spending time growing my business. I was working in the business, not on the business. Once I heeded my friend’s advice to put a lock on my toolbox, I took my tool box out of my car and our business took off.
Best Advice, Part 2: The second best piece of advice came from two sources: Simon Sinek, who gave the famous TED talk, “Connect with Your Why,” and also from author Greg McKeown, who wrote the book “Essentialism,” which echoes a similar message.
Understanding my own “why” and following that thought process has kept me from chasing a lot of deals that seemed alluring at the time, but that would have ended up not necessarily improving my quality of life. When faced with a new deal or proposition, I ask myself why:
• Why expand into a different territory?
• Why buy that marginal laundromat?
• Why develop a pickup-and-delivery service?
Constantly asking myself this question has kept me focused on the core of our business, which for my company is self-service laundry. This laser-focus has produced fantastic margins for us, far greater than what I may have received from other marginal deals. I still may pursue all of those options mentioned above, but it will be for the right reasons.
Best Advice: Keep your store hours consistent.
Customers go where they know the business is open. In practice, consistent store hours are the foundation for other considerations, such as last wash time. Always consider your customers’ needs, and this will make for more business. I no longer own any attended laundromats, and my store hours are 24/7.
Worst Advice: Don’t worry about keeping your laundromat that clean, because your customers will just trash it anyway.
This advice came from the owner of the first laundry I purchased. Of course, I didn’t take the advice, and I’ve been successful in this business for more than 30 years.
Washin Coin Laundry
Golden Springs Laundry Company
Best Advice: As I was renovating and preparing to open my first store in 2010, I received a piece of advice that I have used in every store decision I’ve made since. It came from my wife, Trina: “If I wouldn’t go in there at night, why would anyone else?”
It’s as simple as that. And I use that statement when considering any changes or installations.
This is the main reason that all of our windows have nothing on them, except for an emergency contact number. From your car, you can see most of the store. So, if a customer sees something or someone that makes them uncomfortable or if the store is simply too busy at the time, he or she can make the decision to come back later or go to another one of our locations.
Our interior and exterior lighting is bright and covers all corners of the facilities. Although the area in front of a store should be lit by the landlord, I would never put my customers’ safety in the hands of a landlord. Each store has numerous lights under the canopy.
I also attempt to avoid creating any blind spots in my stores. This can be difficult with the size of today’s equipment. However, it can be an uneasy feeling for a customer to walk into what he or she thinks is an empty store, only to find someone sitting there out of sight in one of a store’s blind spots or hidden corners.
Of course, a laundry’s size will dictate some layouts that can’t be changed. However, when possible, we will install washer islands that enable customers to walk all the way around. This type of design makes for a more comfortable customer experience and allows customers to walk around – rather than past – other people, if they choose to do so.
Trina’s advice also was a key factor in our installation of children’s areas in all of our laundries. What’s more, since the beginning, these areas have expanded from just a television and some smaller chairs to now featuring book racks and reading materials for kids of all ages.
That single phrase uttered nine years ago has shaped our business every step of the way.
BBM Coin Laundry
Best Advice: Other than being encouraged to get in to the laundry business in the first place, I would say the best advice was to purchase an existing laundromat and to purchase the building, as opposed to leasing it. Since I purchased an existing store, it was already equipped with the proper electrical, gas and plumbing utilities. Also, certain aspects of the building were not necessarily up to certain codes; however, due to the age of the building, several of those items were “grandfathered” in. Had I built a brand new laundry, the cost would have been tremendously higher.
And I’m certainly glad I purchased the building, instead of leasing. By owning the building, we have increased our earning potential and decreased the stress of having to renew a lease every few years.
Worst Advice: We were advised against purchasing a second existing store in a specific location. However, we did our due diligence on the store’s utility costs and – if it was doing the amount of business it was doing in the current condition it was in – we knew that acquiring it was a no-brainer, especially with the additions and changes we planned to implement. Thankfully, we didn’t take that initial bad advice and are glad we didn’t.
It had been a 24-hour store, and it was a wreck. Since purchasing it, we set new business hours, installed automated locks, and the whole neighborhood has flocked back to this laundry.
Wash on Western
Best Advice: Enrique, a 20-year laundry veteran here in Los Angeles, gave me some great advice, regarding how many hours I was working in the laundry myself. He said, “It may not make sense today, but as soon as you can financially make it work, don’t be the employee in your laundry – because it will take your focus off of your overall business and growth plan.”
It sounds simple enough but – as the new owner of two stores that opened on the same day, with one of them being a two-year rehab project due to a fire – I was making payroll with credit cards. So, adding 60 hours’ worth of payroll per week seemed impossible. However, over the next 30 days, I did just that and replaced myself with attendants. And, within 60 more days, I was cash flow positive on both of my vended laundries.
I attribute that 100 percent to being able to get my mind back in the business, instead of on counting pennies and getting caught up focusing on the littler things.
Little Giant Laundry
New Haven, Conn.
Best Advice: In the summer of 2004, I was looking to get into the vended laundry business, and long-time, successful Connecticut store owner Chris Balestracci strongly suggested I join the Coin Laundry Association. This was great advice and joining the CLA has been a great investment for me. I attended my first CLA investment seminar in Washington D.C. in September 2004, and I bought my first laundromat that November.
After 15 years, I have no regrets. I can’t think of any bad advice I’ve received. There are a lot of things I wish I had done differently over the years, but overall the good Lord has been with me.
Family Laundry II
Kansas City, Mo.
Best Advice: When I was first looking to get in the vended laundry business, I was looking at a 1,200-square-foot existing laundromat with 20 toploaders; two 25-pound frontloaders; and 12 50-pound, 40-year-old dryers.
My distributor advised me against that store. He told me to find a space close that location that was two or three times larger, and to build a new laundry there. Having come from the furniture sales business, I assumed this guy was thinking only about his own commission. So, I bought that small store, against his advice – and, within two months, customers were leaving me because I didn’t have enough washers to handle the demand.
Eventually, I ended up moving four blocks up the street and finding (and buying) a 3,600-square-foot facility, which ended up being the best thing for me, as well as for laundry business in the south Kansas City market.
Worst Advice: This “advice” came from someone who I thought was a friend. Basically, I allowed him to talk me into a partnership. We built a store together. However, after the build out, the partnership fell apart. He didn’t want to learn about the laundry business or follow through with splitting the costs, which almost put me under. I made the huge mistake of thinking that the business itself would make up for our differences – but the laundry was located 150 miles away from me, and my partner went against all of my wishes and advice when I wasn’t present.
My Advice: Today, at 68, I would suggest against partnerships and tell newcomers to take as much time as they need to learn as much as possible about this business before jumping into it. Interview all of the distributors in the area in which you’re looking to operate. Visit all of them to find the one with which you can build a strong, lasting and trusting relationship. In my opinion, the different types of equipment have a few differences, but the basics are the same. In the end, it’s your distributor who you need to trust.
Simi Valley Laundry Center
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Best Advice: When I began the process of developing my first laundry, my distributor – Van Merrill of Sparklean Laundry Systems, the forerunner to Continental Girbau West – kept repeating over and over that I should “differentiate my laundry business from all of the others.” This was the mantra against which everything I did was tested – and it still is. Is the layout, equipment mix, amenities, parking, access, lighting, employees, etc. all something that make the business different from the others? It has consistently been the motivating force behind many of the things I’ve done, and how I’ve done them. It has led to our adaption of new equipment, new methods and new business opportunities in a quest to “differentiate” ourselves from the competition.
Worst Advice: Also when I was starting out, among the many things I was told, there was the following from different individuals:
1. Nobody needs a store that big.
2. No one will ever use laundry cards.
3. No one will ever use credit cards in a laundry.
4. A laundry must be white, or the clothes will look dingy.
5. You’re making the aisles too wide, which is wasting space.
6. What do you mean you’re not installing any toploading washers?
7. You’re going to go bankrupt in six months.
I appreciate many people’s suggestions and comments. But what I’ve found that typically doesn’t help is advice from those we now refer to as “haters” – those who only have negative things to say and who do nothing to help make something better. Avoid advice from those who are simply trying to avoid mistakes or who have difficulty visualizing something different. Fortunately, we’re lucky to have so many new owners these days who continue to stretch the concept of what a modern vended laundry can be.
Bowling Green, Ohio
Over the years, I’ve received a lot of good and bad advice when opening my first laundry 18 years ago, as well as my second store about three years ago:
Store No. 1: My tax advisor and lawyer suggested I create a limited liability company for the business. Being new to the laundry industry, forming an LLC helped protect my personal assets and gave me tax advantages and flexibility in profit distributions.
Also, I was introduced to a new card system just before placing my equipment order. The card system used mag stripes rather than smartcards, and with a little help from my IT background, I was able to incorporate that system into every aspect of my store. I was able to create the first 100-percent card laundry – with my washers, dryers, vending machines, air hockey game, pool table, video games, restroom door and television remote control all operated through my card system. It gives me full control of everything – no matter where I am at any time of the day.
Store No. 2: It was suggested that, when owning my own property, I should form two separate LLCs – one for the property and one for the business. This offers many advantages, but the largest are the tax savings by paying oneself a favorable rent, as well as the added legal protection.
Store No. 1: “You should have at least 20 percent toploaders in the store.” I couldn’t understand why distributors kept insisting on toploaders, as I was trying to build a highly efficient laundromat with frontloading equipment. I went with all frontloaders and have been very happy with my decision.
“A 24-hour, unattended store will result in theft and vandalism.” This was a concern of mine; however, with DVR and security camera technology, I believed that keeping a clean, well-lit store with several cameras suspended from the ceiling would help deter any vandalism or theft. And I was right. Overall, we’ve had very little 24/7 problems in the past 18 years.
“Don’t use a card system.” Several long-time store owners kept telling me that the older generation didn’t like cards and Hispanic customers didn’t like cards. In fact, the list of people who “didn’t like cards” kept getting longer and longer. I also was warned that I needed to be fully attended in order to educate my customers on using the card system. All false! I’ve run on a card system since Day One and run mostly unattended – and the store has been extremely successful.
Store No. 2: “Don’t build such a small store, it won’t make money.” My daughter and I built the store from the ground up, kept our costs low and ended up with a very efficient 800-square-foot store. And it’s doing better than my original pro forma estimated.
“Use dollar coins.” I was advised by a few different operators to just use dollar coins in my smaller store. However, being a small store, there was no way I could justify a $3 vend price for a double-load washer when the competition were charging only $1.75 to $2. I went with quarters, and we charge $2.25 for a double-loader.
“Don’t use a card system with a small store.” This was my own advice, as a new card system would have been cost-prohibitive. However, having been open now for more than two years, I’ve discovered that using quarters – or any coin denomination – is the most expensive maintenance cost you can incur. When there is an issue with my card store, I can put the machine out of order, refund the customer and visit the store on my time. With quarters, the customers expect me to drive to the store immediately to refund them their 50 cents. With that said, I’m currently converting this small store to a card system so that I can provide better customer service and also be able to monitor the amount of business the store is doing.
CL Consulting Co.
When I opened my first laundromat in 1984, I was a successful district manager for a large insurance company. The original plan was to continue working in the insurance industry and run a coin laundry at the same time. Many of us were doing that back in the ’80s.
Best Advice: Given that, the best advice was from an old friend, who was a self-made millionaire from Brooklyn – and it changed my life. He said, “You can’t ride two horses with one ass. Choose one horse and ride like hell.” As a result, I left my job at the insurance company and never looked back. Five months later, I opened my second laundry, and seven months after that, my third. I believe it was the best advice I ever received. Over the last 35 years and seven laundromats later, I’ve put five children through school and was able to give back to all of the communities in which my stores were located.
Worst Advice: The worst advice came from a New York City laundry owner who told me to turn over my drop-off laundry business to my attendants so that I wouldn’t have to bother with it. “Just keep the quarters they use to start the machines, and let them have the rest,” he suggested. Some years later, after a couple of my wash-dry-fold profit centers had gone past the six-figure mark in earnings, I was thrilled I hadn’t taken that bit of bad advice.
During my 30 years in the laundry business, I’ve been on the receiving end of both good and not-so-good advice. I’ll refrain from calling anything “bad advice,” because it often turns out to be a better teacher than the good advice – and with a longer-lasting impact.
Good Advice: Early in my career, I was lucky enough to have a distributor who mentored me. When I showed him several prospective sites, he laughed (at me, I think) and then proceeded to show me his choice, noting that this was where I needed to be for my first vended laundry. I bought an option on that property and later purchased it. Of course, it turned out to be some of the best advice I ever received. Although it was more expensive to acquire, I later was able to sell it at a handsome profit, which helped me make other acquisitions.
Not-So-Good Advice: Many years later, I was shown the merits of entering the drycleaning business and purchased a rather expensive, repossessed drycleaning machine. I bought that machine assuming it would be great a new profit center for my business. However, I only later discovered that the operation of that machine was not as easy as first advertised. I sold that equipment shortly thereafter. Adding insult to injury, I had to remove the front glass and walls from my store to remove that machine. Clearly, that was some not-so-good advice. The silver lining was that the vendor of this machine later became a financial confidant and a dear friend. But we still don’t discuss the drycleaning business anymore.
My advice – good or not so good – would be to find the seasoned experts in this business, and ask them educated questions. Most will be more than happy to help you avoid the mistakes they made along the way.