If you walk around your local neighbourhood, do you still see shuttered businesses that did not survive the pandemic? Or do you see new ones sprouting in place of those that closed shop? Covid has undeniably made a devastating impact on small businesses, forcing thousands of them to shut down. Those that got most of the brunt are the typical mom-and-pop businesses like dry cleaners, small groceries, local diners and bakeries – those that rely on local customer base and organic foot traffic and were unable to adapt to the challenges brought about by the pandemic.
ihateironing, presently Britain’s biggest on-demand laundry service that partners with a network of master dry cleaners across the UK is one of those businesses that experienced the brunt of the pandemic and survived to tell its story. The effect on ihateironing was two-fold as it lost 70% of its orders when the pandemic struck and it was in danger of losing its network of small businesses of master dry cleaners.
We caught up with Matt Connelly, ihateironing’s CEO and Founder on his experience founding ihateironing and pivoting and navigating it during the pandemic and after, how ihateironing was able to save their small business partners and used their network to provide crucial support to people in need during the pandemic, his thoughts on “fast fashion” and his ideas on making sustainable choices in clothing. As we hit times of economic uncertainty, Matt’s insights are timely and relevant – giving some advice and inspiration on how to get through the year ahead.
How did you get started with ihateironing?
Before ihateironing, I was working in several business ventures helping other people establish and develop their start-ups for 8 years. I founded and managed a variety of start-up programmes, which included creating the first coworking space in the Shoreditch/Tech City sphere.
My lightbulb moment for ihateironing came when I was still working a full-time job in Old Street and struggling as a working professional to stay on top of my laundry.
Around that time, I was on one of my usual runs and passed a backstreet dry cleaner who was advertising their services for half of the normal price. That’s when it hit me. There was no real way for this dry cleaner to bring in new customers without having to slash their prices below what was actually sustainable.
There was a gap in the market for a two-fold solution.
In the early days, I set off to find local dry cleaners who were happy to partner with me. I established a partnership with a dry cleaner named Jeff, who taught me everything about the intricacies of the industry. At the time, I was personally doing everything, from the marketing and recruiting of partners to personally hand-delivering orders in the evenings after my day job was over.
What really helped me keep going was the positive perception I received, both from dry cleaners who were happy to have an extra source of visibility and revenue, and from customers who were struggling with their day-to-day chores.
I was lucky to have made some solid and trustworthy relationships from my entrepreneurship days and got in touch with people who I felt would be valuable on my team. Soon enough, ihateironing grew into a nucleus of two-to-three members, and I quit my day job to pursue the company full time and give it my all.
How did the pandemic affect/shape ihateironing to what it is now? What were the challenges you had to overcome and the lessons learned in running a business that survived and thrived after the pandemic?
The pandemic caused a major disruption in the service industry, and with local businesses at the heart of what we do, we were very aware of the impact that Covid-19 shutdown and the shift towards remote working would have on these small shops.
In the first 3 days of the first lockdown, we lost 70% of our regular orders. With little foresight to what was yet to come, the future of the business faced its biggest uncertainty yet.
But I was determined to keep the small businesses at the core of our operations afloat, and knew we had a range of tools and resources available to us that could be pivoted and adapted to provide people the services they really needed at the time. We partnered with food wholesalers and kicked off our Essential Food Box initiative, delivering essentials across London to people who were struggling to leave their homes. We also offered complimentary cleans for the elderly in self isolation.
Due to the unfailing determination of our team and partners, as well as the unwavering support of our customers, we were able to save 12 small businesses who were on the brink of shutting down. We were also able to create 51 new jobs across our network in 2021 alone. I genuinely believe that our team has come out of this 10 times stronger, as I think we all had to come together to give it our all at a time that was so uncertain.
I learned about the importance of adaptability and being quick on your feet. We had to look at the intricate tech systems we have in place for our usual operations and visualise how we can adjust these to provide people with what they really needed at the time.
How do you choose your network of master dry cleaners and partners?
Selecting the very best dry cleaners is absolutely critical to the success of our business. We’ve actually assessed over 700 dry cleaners to get to our network of 65 master cleaners that we currently work with across the eight cities that we work in. So less than 10% actually make the grade of becoming an ihateironing partner.
We’ve designed a selection process that looks at a lot of different facets, but the most important one in my view is: Do we share the same values and principles? The procedure we have in place helps in understanding if the dry cleaners really care about the customers, if they’re fair and honest, and if they have a culture of excellence. Outside of values, we look very closely at the experience of the owner of the dry cleaner facility, from their skills and know-how to their attitude. We also look at the wider team and how the facility functions.
If after doing this full assessment our operations team feel that the dry cleaner has the potential to become an ihateironing partner, then we undertake a trial period where we pass them a limited number of orders and closely assess the standard of their work. After this extensive trial period, we decide whether a dry cleaner can become an official ihateironing partner.
What sets ihateironing apart from other on-demand laundry and delivery services?
There are two principal things that I think help us to be the very best in the industry. The first is that we’ve always had the ethos on becoming the best, rather than purely focusing on becoming the biggest. Many people have come into the market wanting to be the biggest laundry service in the UK and internationally. But purely focusing on size and growth can make you lose sight of the key thing that allows you to truly grow in a sustainable and reliable way: and that’s by working hard to be the best.
ihateironing has always had a laser focus on delivering the best service and providing our customers with an overall great experience: from the convenience of our same day pickup and deliveries, the professionalism and attention to detail that goes into the cleaning and packaging process, and of course the dedication of our Customer Care Team. This has helped us work towards being a market leader without losing sight of what really matters.
The second thing that makes us stand out is that we don’t outsource our dry cleaning to third party providers. A core part of our business is empowering great local dry cleaners to grow. The partnerships we have are things to be developed and nourished over years. We’ve helped many small businesses double and triple in size over the past few years. Every dry-cleaning partner we have is an extended part of our team. In many other cases, laundry startups have used third party providers to outsource their operations to cut costs and get the services as cheaply as possible. We have the right balance of utilising the know-how of our dry-cleaning experts while also helping them grow their business and thrive.
What do you think of “fast fashion”?
“Fast fashion” tends to give us a rush of short-term satisfaction, but the materials used for the garments, the level of tailoring and the lifetime of the piece can’t compare to higher quality items. Over time, it is arguably less expensive to purchase a few classic, high-quality pieces which will last a lifetime, than it is to attempt to chase 52 weeks of trends.
Furthermore, it’s impossible to deny the negative footprint that fast fashion has on the planet. Both in terms of the pollution created during the high-energy production processes, as well as the promotion of a “disposable mindset” which promotes the frequent and negligent discarding of garments for newer ones.
Through ihateironing, I’ve tried to use the resources and systems we have at our disposal to advocate towards a more sustainable approach to fashion. Firstly, we’ve launched our Brixton Library Workwear Scheme, where we facilitate the donation, free cleaning, and lending of professional clothes to low-income job seekers instead of having these garments go to waste or remain forgotten in people’s wardrobes. Similarly, we’ve partnered with local charity Madrina Oxfordshire to assist them with giving preloved prom dresses and suits a second home in the face of the cost of living crisis.
What can ordinary people to do to be more sustainable in their choices and use of clothing? What about the clothing industry and its allied services?
We believe in the importance of preserving clothes and making use of what you already have instead of throwing away perfectly good garments that just need a bit of a refresh. By implementing small changes in the ways, you care for your clothes you can double their lifetime and avoid the cycle of discarding perfectly good pieces.
Trying to give your old clothes a refurb instead of getting rid of them at the first sign of a tear or a stain can go a long way in terms of making your wardrobe more sustainable. A missing button or broken zipper can easily be repaired by your local dry cleaner, and stubborn stains can be removed by cleaning experts to make a garment look pristine and brand new again. Even on a personal level, making sure you follow the care label instructions on your clothes can save you the risk of discolouration, lint balls, shrinking, and fading colours.
Another big reason why people opt to throw away perfectly good garments is because they’re too small, or they no longer fit their current body shape. But a change in body shape shouldn’t make your clothes unwearable. By opting for professional tailoring and alterations, you can take in, take out, shorten or lengthen most items to make them fit perfectly again
What is next for ihateironing?
Our business has done incredibly well over the last couple of years, firstly to navigate through covid where there was every chance that the business could have failed after losing 70% of our revenue in the first few days in March 2020. We were able to get through that period and more than double our pre-Covid revenue in the subscript period, which has been a fantastic achievement. But really, this business’s brightest days lie ahead.
We’ve built a solid foundation and moving forward we’re determined to use that foundation to build a great business in the future. I think we’ve still got the potential to take the scale of our business to the next level in terms of the cities that we exist in to make our service more available to other parts of the UK as well as internationally. We want to keep improving the experience we offer our customers, and make sure we’re always giving it our all.
We want to continue to make our customers’ lives easier, while also supporting the continuous growth and success of local businesses and ensure their success in a digital age.
We’re proud to have offered our services to help local organisations and charities, such as our Brixton Library Workwear Scheme. We hope to continue offering a helping hand wherever possible and use the tools we have at our disposal to push our local communities forward.