Former banker makes a clean break with Dubai laundry service

Bader Al Kalooti struck upon his innovative dry cleaning business idea after experiencing bad service from a laundry.

Bader Al Kalooti, the founder of Laundrybo, with his automated locker system, which lets tenants drop off and pick up their laundry at their convenience.  Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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It was while working as an investment banker that Bader Al Kalooti had his most memorable dry cleaning disaster. He learnt at short notice of a meeting in Amman, Jordan, the next day so rushed his suit to the dry cleaners to be freshened up.

“You have to deliver it at 3pm because I’m going to the airport at 3.15pm,” Mr Al Kalooti told his laundry assistant.

The assistant turned up on time – but with the wrong suit, and the jacket and trousers didn’t even match.

“I didn’t have time to do anything about it so I grabbed the suit,” Mr Al Kalooti recalls. “It was so tight I looked like a breakdancer.”

His boss made him buy a new suit in duty free.

A few years down the line Mr Al Kalooti, a native of Kuwait, was casting around for a entrepreneurial venture when he realised there had been little improvement in the laundry business since his dry cleaning debacle.

“It hasn’t caught up with the 21stcentury,” he remembers thinking. “There has to be a better way.”

He gave the problem careful consideration. Friends and colleagues were all too ready to share their own laundry-related grumbles of bad service, bad quality and inconvenience.

So he dreamed up an automated locker system that would allow users to drop off and pick up their laundry at their own convenience in their own apartment block. Preferences such as whether T-shirts should be folded or put on a hanger or whether shirts should be starched or not would be entered into the system once then stored for future reference. Card payments would be an option.

Angel investors said they liked the idea, as did real estate developers: tenants would get a convenient service and the building management would make money renting previously empty wall space.

“It’s a win-win situation for everybody,” he says.

The idea gathered momentum and Mr Al Kalooti decided to quit his banking job.

He raised US$1.3 million of initial funding, put a business plan together then spent 18 months researching and developing the system. This included designing the software for the automated locker system, integrating that with the company’s website, and designing the lockers themselves.

He also developed his own laundry facilities.

“That was the thing that kept me up at night: ‘should I do the outsource model or should I not?” he says.

He decided he didn’t want to be at the mercy of others’ laundry operations so he brought in his own specialists from Dubai’s top hotels.

“No matter how convenient my service and locker systems are, if I didn’t have the right quality checks in place people are not going to use my service,” he reasons. “One of our core components is that we actually control the laundry as well.”

Laundrybox was born last April with the first lockers installed in Burj Residences in Downtown Dubai. Nine months later the lockers are in 20 buildings in Dubai and there are franchise inquiries coming in from London, New York, Paris and Australia, Mr Al Kalooti says. However, he adds it is a little to early for franchising with tweaks to the business still to be made, but he hopes to have a deal in place later this year.

The businessman prides himself that Laundrybox users don’t need to leave instructions about whether garments should be washed or dry cleaned. Neither do they need to alert the company to particular stains that need attention.

“It’s our job to know,” Mr Al Kalooti says.

Laundrybox staff inspect each item of clothing and decide whether to dry clean or wash it and how to treat stains. Problematic stains are documented by camera and a picture is sent to the customer with a note explaining that Laundrybox will do its best to clean the garment but it might not be successful. Garments with untreatable stains are returned to the customer free of charge with a note explaining the problem. Communication is everything, explains Mr Al Kalooti. Lost buttons are replaced free of charge and there is no extra cost for an overnight service.

The entrepreneur says he is pleased with the numbers in each building using the system but won’t disclose those figures publicly. At the end of last year the company secured a second round of investment worth $1.4m from Zarooni Emirates Investments to expand the business.

“People appreciate us and we offer great prices” says Mr Kalooti. “If you look at our next-day service and the quality we give, we are probably one of the cheapest. We did this on purpose because we want market share. We are not a niche laundry, we want to be a market mass laundry.”