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(DEBORAH BAIC/GLOBE AND MAIL)
(DEBORAH BAIC/GLOBE AND MAIL)

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No time to take in dry cleaning? Bring it to the office Add to ...

Small businesses are bringing their services to office workers across Canada, hoping to cash in on one of society’s most precious commodities: time.

Employees can now have their dry cleaning picked up and dropped off, their cars washed and even their hair and makeup done without leaving their desks.

“At the end of the day, if you have discretionary income, the one thing you cannot do is create more time,” says Vincent Chew Wong, a business adviser to the self-employment program at Langara College in Vancouver. “Once you reach a certain threshold, your time becomes more valuable than the time it would take you to walk to your dry cleaner, for instance. If someone is going to provide that service to you at reasonable cost, then it makes sense to do it. It comes down to economics.”

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That rationale drove Ryan Dingman to start Clean It Online, a dry cleaning service that caters to office workers in downtown Toronto. The company acts as the middleman between the customers and a dry cleaning depot it contracted to handle the business.

Customers schedule their dry cleaning pickup online and a delivery truck comes to the office the next day. The clothes are sent to the dry cleaner and returned to customers two days later. Delivery is free and the pricing is competitive with most dry cleaners in the city, says Mr. Dingman, who started the business in May with two business partners. All three are engineers-turned-entrepreneurs, who got the idea after hearing about a similar service in New York, where concierge-style services have been popular for years.

Mr. Dingman and his team spent about a year on planning, including a partnership with marketing companies that offer promotion packages to groups of employees, and a lot of old-fashioned door knocking to get property managers and human resources representatives to allow entry into offices across the city.

Margins for dry cleaning depots are typically 50 per cent to 65 per cent, and Mr. Dingman says his company is at the high end of that, given its major costs are a just a van, a driver and gas. “Even with those healthy margins, you still need volume. Once we hit 100 regular customers we'll be nicely profitable. We're over one-third of the way there already.”

The longer-term goal is to turn Clean It Online into a country-wide franchise.

The biggest challenge so far is to break people’s habit of using bricks-and-mortar dry cleaners and getting them to try what is being promoted as a more convenient option. “We are competing with people’s mindsets,” Mr. Dingman says. “The business model makes sense once we get people to try it. The key is getting people to try it.”

For these types of businesses to be sustainable, they need to attract clients quickly, “wow” them with their services, then rely on word of mouth to grow, says Becky Reuber, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “At the beginning the clients will think ‘this is great,’ but once they get more experienced they’ll get more discerning about what they like or don’t like,” she explains. “These aren’t closed industries. Keeping quality high is just as important as getting in. One really happy customer will help you get the next one … that tends to be how organizations buy.”

A year after starting up, Vancouver-area company Keeners Car Wash is about to double its business to include a second truck and six employees. The non-profit company, owned by Family Services of Greater Vancouver, has eight clients in the Vancouver area, including Electronic Arts, which lists the car wash and detailing service as an employee perk in job ads. Other clients include Vancity and Metro Vancouver.

“It’s a captive audience,” says Keeners Cash Wash general manager Andrew Bryson. These are customers who are “busy with their lives. They like to have these tasks that they don’t necessarily want to do on their own, taken care of.”

While clients come to Keener Car Wash for the service, many are also attracted to its social enterprise model, with all profit going to support programs for homeless youth. But Mr. Bryson says lining up customers is challenging, and includes getting in the door to pitch the service, then making arrangements with building operations people and other stakeholders to make it work. Keeners Car Wash also carries liability insurance that covers its employees and the vehicles it cleans, just in case there’s an accident (which he says hasn't happened yet).

With most of its clients, Keeners Car Wash staff stop by once every week or two on a scheduled day, and set up the operation across a few parking spaces in a company lot. Workers schedule their car washes in advance, and they pay for the service once it’s complete.

Mr. Bryson says the company has a five-year goal to run seven trucks and a team of 20 people that service staff at corporations across Greater Vancouver.

The car wash is one of a handful of on-site services EA offers to its 1,300 staff in Burnaby, B.C., including dry cleaning and tailoring. The video game company absorbs some of the expenses of hosting those services, including the time its employees take to facilitate the orders, which is considered the cost of keeping employees happy.

“It’s a small price to pay in terms of the added convenience it brings to our employees,” says Colin Macrae, EA's senior director of communications.

Running a mobile business requires a lot of flexibility, says Erin Gerlach, who does hair and makeup for clients in a handful of corporate offices in Vancouver through her company, Sparkle Beauty Styling. “You need to work around a client’s timetable and schedule,” she explains.

“The mobile thing is really important. We are all multi-tasking. Going to someone’s office or house is the best way to reach that client.”

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