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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 14, 2018 1 week ago

Relentless entrepreneur hunts success — in cleaning clothes

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In three years of trying to bring disruption to an old-line business, Todd Belveal has had countless doors shut on him. He’s not about to give up.  
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Tampa area tech entrepreneur Todd Belveal passionately believes he could upend the way people pay to clean clothes at laundromats.

Upend, as in replace coins with a smartphone app.

While he still might succeed in his mission, Belveal has so far been met with heavy resistance from the old-boy network that makes up the retail laundry service business nationwide.

“Laundromats suck,” deadpans Belveal. “They need to be upgraded.”

Belveal’s experience with Washlava, the company he founded in 2015, is a lesson in entrepreneurial patience, finding other revenue sources when original ones are dead ends and navigating unexpected marketplace inertia. Going on three years, Belveal believes the stakes are high for the company going into the latter part of 2018.

“We are at a critical point,” says Belveal, 50. “We want to prove ourselves to venture capital firms, who have a high threshold for success.”

Up until now, Washlava has been funded at about $5 million from Belveal and a small group of Tampa area investors. Belveal’s big goal is to get a Silicon Valley firm to invest in Washlava, possibly at $10 million or even $15 million.

Belveal has been here before — sort of — but with cars, not washing machines. In 2012, Belveal, a onetime executive with high-end jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co., co-founded Silvercar, a car rental mobile app. Now owned by Audi, Belveal raised about $25 million in two years for Silvercar, where you can book, pay and even unlock the Audi at more than a dozen airports nationwide from a smartphone app.

“I like rental businesses,” says Belveal. “They have good cash flow — if they are busy.”

With Washlava, Belveal says he spent the first year or so meeting, or trying to meet, with laundromat owners, industry leaders and others connected to the sector. Rejections flowed, and he made little progress. “People in the industry seem to like the status quo,” he says.

Belveal is stunned at the lack of headway. The product, he says, is the perfect bridge to the digital economy for laundromats. It’s an app that works in connection with a patent-pending proprietary board inside a washer and dryer. A customer can use the Washlava app to reserve machines, unlock the door and more. A laundromat owner can control pricing and usage, and in an important element, forgo quarters.

‘Laundromats suck. They need to be upgraded.’ Todd Belveal, Washlava

(The end-of-quarters angle is personal to Belveal. In 2015, he bought a laundromat in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa, an investment for $68,000. “But when our store was robbed and thousands of dollars in quarters were strewn across the parking lot, we decided to do something,” Belveal writes on his company’s website. “All that change had to change.”)

The Carrollwood laundromat he operates, says Belveal, is a perfect Washlava case study. Year-over-year revenue is up 60% since he began using the system. And, anecdotally, he says word-of-mouth of the system has brought in customers who would normally not use a  laundromat. “It’s been a phenomenal retail opportunity,” he says.

But with no progress in selling Washlava’s service and apps to other laundromats, Belveal has turned to other areas. For one, instead of partnering with laundromat owners, he’s expanding on his own, with the July opening of a second laundromat in a highly populated Queens, N.Y., neighborhood. He’s also running a large test on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville, which he says has been successful and could open doors to the lucrative multifamily market.

Another way? Bypass laundromats by going to the source — washing and drying machine manufacturers. Washlava posted a big victory there earlier this summer when it won first place at the Electrolux Future of Laundry Challenge in China. A Swedish appliance manufacturer, Electrolux sought companies, it says in a statement, that could show how to “redefine the use of consumer laundry machines in China based on the principles of the shared economy.”

Washlava, one of 70 entries narrowed down to five finalists, underwent extensive reviews from a panel of judges. Prizes included cash and potential business collaboration with Electrolux in China. “I’m gratified we won,” Belveal says. “It’s a real validation of our approach.”

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