How we scaled our revolutionary sustainable laundry service – during a pandemic
Words Kyle Grant
In collaboration with Reckitt Benckiser (RB) & Founders Factory
November 28th 2020 / 10 min read
Find out how Dr Kyle Grant and co-founder Tom de Wilton scaled their sustainable laundry startup, Oxwash, through Founders Factory’s startup accelerator program, raising £1.75m in seed funding, and embarking on a game-changing partnership with corporate FMCG giant Reckitt Benckiser (RB) – all during the pandemic.
We launched Oxwash in 2018, while I was completing my Synthetic Biology PhD at the University of Oxford. The business was born out of my own frustration with the perpetually broken washing machines in my college laundry. Armed with a bike and a deliveroo backpack spray-painted blue, I began collecting and washing clothes for fellow students. Things quickly snowballed – and as interest grew, it developed into a growing on-demand laundry business.
My co-founder, Tom, and I both come from engineering backgrounds. I started my career as a system engineer working at NASA, where I researched the use and effect of microorganisms for extended space travel. Tom is an Oxford University Engineer with a background designing and building bespoke treehouses around the world.
Together, we identified an opportunity to rethink laundry, and re-engineer the cleaning process from the ground up.
743,651 tonnes of laundry are processed by the UK’s industrial laundry sector each year
Industrial laundry accounts for 25% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions
Global laundry usage releases 14,000 tons of microfibers into the oceans each year.
The UK industrial laundry sector processes approximately 743,651 tonnes of laundry a year. This accounts for about 25% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions, according to the Carbon Trust.
But carbon emissions aren’t our biggest worry: global laundry usage releases a seismic 14,000 tons of microfibers into the oceans each year, which means that one-third of all plastic found in the ocean are microfibers from our clothes.
By switching to washing on a cold cycle just once a week, each household could reduce its carbon footprint by 23kg a year. And by regularly using colder, faster cycles, we could reduce microfiber pollution by nearly one-third – saving over 4,000 tons each year.
At Oxwash, we’re working towards decarbonising the unsustainable and toxic laundry industry. The market is certainly ready for disruption: by 2029, the global “green cleaning” market will reach US $11.6 billion.
We wanted to come up with a model that was hyper-local, carbon-neutral, and tech-enabled. Our laundry system recycles and disinfects water from previous wash cycles, saving up to 60% of the water consumed in a typical commercial washing machine:
First, we use microfiber filtration to remove more than 95% of fibres shed during washing, preventing plastic pollution from reaching waterways and drinking water.
Then, we use ozone to disinfect fabrics at lower temperatures than traditional washing and dry-cleaning services.
Next, we use biodegradable chemical detergents to increase the hygiene of the wash cycles for healthcare laundry, while preventing surplus chemical usage.
Finally, we use electric cargo bikes to conduct all our pick-ups and deliveries, in order to further reduce our carbon emissions and reduce congestion and pollution within the communities we work in.
Early on, we tested this model on several reference customers, including students from Wadham and Trinity Colleges, members of the Oxford Royale Academy, and local businesses. Soon, people started calling, emailing, and jumping out in front of our bikes asking for our services – and we knew we were on to a winner.
"By switching to washing on a cold cycle just once a week, each household could reduce its carbon footprint by 23kg a year."
Fundraising during a pandemic
The next step was getting our business off the ground. We were accepted into the Oxford Foundry L.E.V8 Accelerator Program, and by 2019, we had secured a £400K pre-seed round, which we used to build our first laundry hub (or “Lagoon”) and test our brand-new cleaning process.
We had all the science we needed, we had the practical know-how, we had our fleet of bikes, and we had our first cleaning facility. But we needed some help to scale our startup.
An introduction led us to Founders Factory’s new Home & Hygiene vertical. We soon realised that they were working on a joint venture with RB, the legendary FMCG powerhouse behind hygiene brands such as Vanish, Dettol and Durex. Our interest was piqued – and when our entrepreneurial friends Hugo (ChargedUp) and Nick (HeadStart) both unanimously recommended Founders Factory, we decided to join their Accelerator Program.
This decision turned out to be a real leg-up for our business, especially in raising seed funding right at the start. Founders Factory co-led a £1.75 million seed round together with TrueSight Ventures, Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter), Paul Forster (founder of Indeed.com), and several other angel investors. Finally, RB closed off the investing round with a direct investment through their new venture capital arm.
The timing couldn’t have been better. We entered the accelerator program in February 2020, and with the arrival of COVID-19 in March, everything went into chaos.
“Without Founders Factory, we couldn’t have completed our growth before lockdown – at which point venture capital dried up like a prune.”
Partnering with a reputable, global brand
Oxwash was one of the very first ventures to join Founders Factory’s Home & Hygiene vertical. It’s no secret that we joined the accelerator primarily to work with RB. In fact, we had our eyes set on them from the very beginning.
Learning from one of the biggest players in FMCG would give us invaluable traction within the home and hygiene sector, and provide us with a robust support structure for our scaling business. We were particularly drawn to the Vanish brand, or perhaps more specifically, their new mission to extend the lifespan of our clothes and restore old clothes to their former (stain-free) glory.
Working with Founders Factory allowed us to short-circuit straight up to the C-suite at RB – an opportunity we would never have come across on our own. The investment piece was a real accelerant, and crucially, it created some goodwill with RB. With £1.75million in the bag, we had proved that we meant business – and our partnership could begin in earnest.
We were paired with two incredibly senior mentors: Abhishek Chukarbutty (then Global Category Director at RB) and Luca Spadoni (R&D Director of Vanish). Abhishek, a “laundry expert”, provided invaluable category insight, including deep expertise around laundry procedures and sanitation claims, while Luca advised on the complicated chemistry behind laundry.
We had our first chat with RB in January 2020. The brief from RB was for Abhishek and Luca to provide us with mentoring, but soon we were on the road to securing a major brand partnership. We've combined our door-to-door laundry service with the phenomenal chemistry of Vanish's new and sustainable product 'Zero' to give clothes a new lease of life, and ultimately preventing the 350,000 tonnes of clothes from entering UK landfill every year.
“If we were just another laundry app we would never have raised the money. Investors care about sustainability and community. The fact that we’re doing good was key for us.”
Lesson from the founder: How to nail corporate partnerships
Focus on getting to know each other first. When working with big corporates, it’s important to remember that their primary concern is protecting their own proprietary interests and brand IP. Before we could get down to business with RB, we had to spend some time getting to know each other. The process is oddly like dating: you start off by going on a few dates, finding common ground, making your date feel comfortable – and never leave a date without saying you want to see them again! In other words, a corporate partnership is just like any other relationship with a real person – and to succeed, both sides need to invest and buy into it.
Align with their brand purpose. “You can’t build a brand on convenience,” Abhishek says. It’s got to be purpose-driven. And our job was to make sure that Oxwash clearly aligned with RB’s purpose: to protect, heal and nurture. There are lots of laundry services out there, but we added a point of difference by making it purpose-driven. Because of this, we were able to co-develop a proposal for a new product, which we pitched together to RB – and this lifted our relationship from a “mentorship” to a real corporate partnership.
Figure out how you can create value. In order to get an investment from a big corporate, there’s got to be something in it for them. In other words, it’s up to us to create value for them. Our biggest advantage was that we were more agile than RB, which enabled a lot of new opportunities for Vanish. Abhishek and Luca, who were used to slow-working corporate mechanisms, were particularly impressed with the speed and flexibility of our operation and how fast we could test and learn, as well as the data and insight we could provide into consumers' laundry habits.
We remain deeply embedded with the Vanish team, who have been incredibly generous with their resources. Their graphic designer even helped us create new designs for our bags and bikes. Fabrice Beaulieu (EVP group marketing Excellence & EVP CDO Hygiene), recently joined our company board, and in 2021, we’re looking forward to receiving one of their team members to work at Oxwash on secondment. Most importantly, RB have allowed us to keep being ourselves, without imposing their own ways of working on us. Our partnership has truly been a reciprocal learning experience – and we’ve gotten so much out of it.
It’s been a pleasure to see how Oxwash and RB have been collaborating to build shared success. Their vision and purpose align perfectly with RB’s work, where together we can help consumers wash more and waste less. Oxwash have a similar DNA of getting things done and I’m proud to be joining their board for the next phase of their journey.
– Fabrice Beaulieu, EVP group marketing Excellence & EVP CDO Hygiene of RB
Developing our growth mindset
Tom and I are both engineers, and our entire careers have been focused on solving practical scientific problems. Until we met Abhishek, we didn’t have a value proposition – we hadn’t thought to ask ourselves what we offer the consumer. And until we met Founders Factory’s Growth team, we didn’t have a formal growth strategy – we had only ever approached our growth with a finger in the air.
Working with the Growth team, we mapped out the entire customer funnel to understand where we could optimise the customer journey, prevent drop-offs, and improve the customer experience. With their help, we created a thorough tracking plan, which enabled us to have visibility of each part of the customer journey for the very first time; from landing on our homepage and signing up, to adding products to cart and checking out.
I remember being shocked to discover that our customers needed to go through seven different touchpoints to close one order. The Growth team helped us identify low-hanging fruit, and solve problems quickly, so we could crack on with scaling our business. They referred to this as “plugging the holes” in our “leaky bucket” – one of Tom’s favourite analogies.
Oxwash is a hyper-local business at heart, and the Growth team helped us put together some of our most exciting local initiatives. For example, we introduced neighbour referral codes, dropping leaflets around Oxford offering a discounted rate to the area. We also leveraged our B2B clients to find more B2C customers, giving cafés, hotels and restaurants leaflets to hand out to customers.
At first, a lot of our growth initiatives were very manual. For example, we wanted to start targeting AirBnb hosts, but we found that market nearly impossible to penetrate. The AirBnb algorithm blocks you from messaging multiple hosts on their platform, property addresses on the app are imprecise, and host profiles lack surnames and contact info. To get around this problem, we bought data from AirBnb (AirDNA) to isolate AirBnb hotspots. We were specifically looking for areas with the highest possible cost per night, and the shortest average length of stay (short stays = more laundry). Once we had found an area with a high concentration of suitable AirBnbs, all we had to do was find the properties. Initially, this involved our team physically scouring the area, cycling around Oxford on their Oxwash bikes, looking for apartments that had key safes or lockboxes outside (a good indication that it might be AirBnb), and then leaving them a handwritten note advertising our service.
Handwritten notes are incredibly impactful, boasting a 100% open-rate, and a conversion rate that sits above the average of email and other channels. Knowing this, we started using RoboQuill to deliver robotic “handwritten” letters at scale, and the results we saw were incredible: the RoboQuill notes look incredibly genuine and most importantly, they enable us to continue positioning ourselves as a local, neighbourhood laundry service.
When deciding which new cities to launch in, we were faced with a few barriers to entry – the main one being whether our riders could cycle around. Hilly cities create a big barrier, and to scale, we would need to use vans, which would completely change our business model.
Steering clear of hills, we used the Airbnb data to hone in on two new promising areas in the UK: Cambridge and London. With the help of the Growth team, we launched a dedicated landing page for each city, in order to capture organic search traffic, target each city using paid campaigns, and personalise the user experience. It seems so simple, but we hadn’t thought about it before.
Pivoting to overcome COVID-19
In March, we were thrown off course. COVID-19 hit us in the teeth, and Tom and I ended up spending a lot of bandwidth just getting through the crisis. We pivoted the business to provide COVID-19 disinfection, working closely with the NHS to disinfect hospital gowns and medical equipment, and providing laundry for garments worn by scientists in the Oxford University vaccine trial. The biggest challenge was balancing the engineering side with keeping our team safe – and with people dying in waves, it was a hard balance to strike.
Oxwash machines kill bacteria through a three-stage process:
This reduces 99.99999% of the infection – 100 times better than the NHS standard.
Not convinced? Here is a snapshot of two swabs taken from an Airbnb linen pre and post Oxwash laundry process:
A: Microbial load pre Oxwash process with S. aureus, E. faecalis, E. coli and Aspergillus sp. present.
B: Microbial load post Oxwash process with no detectable microbial load present.
There were no guidelines for what we were doing – at the time, we didn’t even know if the virus could be transferred via textiles. But there were no margins for error. We just had to make sure the whole process was airtight from the beginning.
We adopted laboratory-grade PPE (heavily inspired from my time at NASA), and had riders ready to cycle to hospital wearing full-on hazmat suits. We introduced contactless laundry collections: customers would pre-bag their items in dissolvable bags, and our riders (wearing gloves, goggles, and a respirator) would transfer the laundry back to our Oxford Lagoon, where a member of our team in full hazmat gear would transfer each load to be disinfected in our machines.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to do it all alone. Founders Factory was there to help us through these crazy months. And during lockdown, the growth team helped us create a “Donate a Wash” campaign: we raised 13K in donations (mostly from our brilliant investors) to build a platform where key workers and the elderly could get a free wash. Not only were we able to help the community, it was also massive for our brand profile. We still have 5,000 free washes left to give out to key workers and elderly persons, if you'd like to Donate a Wash here.
So what’s next for Oxwash? Firstly, our seed funding will be used to expand to more cities within the UK and Europe. After taking on London, we’ve got our eyes on other European hubs such as Paris and Amsterdam. Eventually, we hope to embed ourselves through metropolitan Europe and expand into North America, turning Oxwash into a full franchise.
This whole experience made us realise that we needed our own Head of Growth. Luckily, Founders Factory helped us find Ella, and since she joined us, our engagement has gone through the roof. The team also helped us find our Head of Tech, Toni, (formerly with logistics company Wings) – and we continue to expand our team as we grow.
Our partnership with RB will, of course, continue in the new year, where we’ll be working together to help them in their quest to eliminate fast fashion by extending the longevity of clothes.
As for us, we’ll keep working to improve our services until we become the first laundry service on Mars.
Join Oxwash in our Home & Hygiene Accelerator
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