Today, The Laundry Chute is a Pittsburgh startup that leverages digital tech and the growing gig economy.
But back in 2015, they began as a surprisingly traditional business. A Laundry Chute truck would pick up dirty clothes from students at college campuses around Pittsburgh, then they’d wash those clothes and drive them back to campus 48 hours later for drop-off.
“It was costly,” says CEO and co-founder James Janis, “and not scalable, and not profitable.”
So Janis and his team looked in the mirror, he says, and adapted the business model behind services like Uber and Lyft to create a new ecosystem that “allows for a win-win for everybody.”
Like a ride-sharing service for laundry, The Laundry Chute connects students willing to wash clothes with those who need them done.
Here’s how The Laundry Chute 2.0 works: Students register online or via the company’s app, then use a code to drop their laundry at a bank of “smart lockers” located on their campus. Another student, trained by the company, picks up that bag of laundry and washes it on campus at one of the laundry rooms in the dorms.
Those student workers earn $4 per bag and tend to wash three or four bags per hour. They can pull in as much as $20 an hour, if they get good ratings and become “super processors” who can successfully wash, dry and fold five loads at a time.
Within 24 hours, the student worker then drops the clean laundry back at the bank of lockers, and the owner of the laundry uses a code to pick it up at their convenience. The service is anonymous and if customers wish, they can choose the gender of the person washing their clothes.
Parents love that their kids are working from their own secure residence halls, Janis says, and students love that they can work at 2 a.m. if they wish. They can also ramp up their working hours during weeks when their classwork is light, and then cut back when their school work needs more attention
Student customers generally pay about $7 or $8 per bag of laundry, depending on their university’s location and the supply/demand of available workers versus laundry that needs washing. As with ride-sharing services, there is “surge pricing” — the cost can rise as high as $12 per bag.
The company has found eager workers and equally eager customers, Janis says. Currently, they have four banks of lockers on the Pitt campus that are in frequent use, and The Laundry Chute is expanding on other campuses around town.
“We’ve signed pretty much every mid-to-large school in the city,” he says. Though they’re also busy pursuing a national expansion, “it’s important to us conquer our backyard as much as we conquer the country.”
And they’ve recently signed an agreement with Arm & Hammer and OxiClean to exclusively use those products. The laundry soap brand Tide has their own college laundry service, which does things the old-fashioned way — picking up clothes and taking them off-campus for washing. But Janis isn’t worried about competing.
He says the “laundry eco-system” his company has created is an income driver for student workers, as well as for the companies who own and operate the on-campus washing machines and dryers, including CSC ServiceWorks and Caldwell & Gregory, owned by Pittsburgh based Incline Equity Partners.
Though they began as a decidedly low-tech service, Janis says, “we’re proud to be part of the Pittsburgh tech community.”