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The Humble Cobbler and the Laundry Giant

June 21, 2018

This post was a Tide Spin post. Tide Spin has now merged with Pressbox to create Tide Cleaners.


When Procter and Gamble brand manager David VanHimbergen hopped a flight to Chicago for an inspiration session with the laundry innovation team, he could not have known that the windy city would blow his whole career off course.  In July 2014, he landed in Chicago as a seasoned analyst and marketer, but he would leave as a budding entrepreneur.


The trip was organized by P&G’s Front End Innovation Team (FEI) as a way to ignite some tiny sparks and see if any burst into flame.  They hired Chicago-based Design Agency Webb Devlam to lead them on what was appropriately termed a Quest—a quest for new ideas, a quest for new perspective, a quest to find something in the underground that P&G could bring to the surface.


Chicago’s skyline is lined with shiny and impressive architecture, housing headquarters of major brands such as Groupon, Boeing and Kraft Heinz, but it was not the Fortune 500’s or the corporate monoliths that dazzled the FEI team.  It was, instead, the underbelly, the grains of sand hidden deep within the shiny clamshell that caught VanHimbergen’s eye.


As part of the quest for ideas, the team sipped tea at Argo Tea’s River North location and drank in the shop’s attention to craft, specialization and premium offerings. They visited Luxury Garage Sale, an upscale consignment shop where Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Vitton get a breath of new life for designer garage sale prices.  But it was the shoemaker Anne Mohaupt of Mohop shoes who made the biggest impression on VanHimbergen. 


Her shop was small and dark, hidden away in a basement like a humble cobbler, but she was no Gipetto.  An architect by trade, Mohaupt had taken her desire to work with her hands and her passion for design to blueprint shoes instead of buildings.  She had stacks of wood and piles of ribbon and she walked the P&G team through how she took a few simple and sustainable materials to custom-build a shoe that was both comfortable and stylish.


How did this basement shoe boutique light a spark in VanHimbergen?


“It was the fact that she was doing so much with so little.  She didn’t enter her venture with a ton of expertise but she was so committed to it that she just figured it out as she went.  I was inspired by her courage and commitment, and her focus on the small steps.  First she was doing it by hand and then she raised enough money to buy a laser cutter to be more precise.  As she made more money, she got more sophisticated.”


An impression was made—the idea that business starts with someone thinking they’d like to learn how to make a pair of shoes.  The idea that the entrepreneur isn’t an expert or a billionaire, but simply someone willing to start small and take a chance that someone might see the same value that they see in their product.


So it was from Mohaupt that he gathered courage for the project, but the project itself didn’t materialize until he experienced his first Uber ride in the windy city.


“With just a few taps on our phones, we summoned Navigators and Tahoes to take us to our next destination.  The ease of use was fascinating, but we found the business model even more fascinating.  Without investing a lot of capital in assets, Uber had disrupted the taxi industry by creating a simpler, more convenient experience.  In just a few short years, their valuation has already surpassed General Motors and Ford.”


It was this threat of disruption that got the team thinking— these days in the business world, it wasn’t the big beating the small; it was the fast beating the slow.  P&G was big, but they needed to be faster.  What could disrupt the laundry business the way Uber had upended the taxi business?


People in the city of Chicago were looking for convenience in everything.  An easy ride?—tap, tap—order an Uber.  An easy meal?  Tap, tap—order Grub Hub.  Need groceries?  Tap, tap—Instacart.  Where was the tap, tap service for wash-and-fold laundry?


After a week of crafting some initial ideas and running a few numbers, they saw the write-up on Washio, a Santa Monica, California-based start-up that was already doing it—wash-and-fold laundry and dry cleaning on-demand. 


It was suggested in early discussions that rather than start their own wash-and-fold laundry app, P&G should simply acquire a business like Washio that was already out there doing it. 


But VanHimbergen worried that they would potentially overpay for another business, and insisted that much like the shoemaker, there was value in starting small and learning to do it on their own.


“I didn’t know much about the service side of laundry or mobile apps, how to start a company, how to hire people, how to get leadership rallied around us, but I was committed to it and I decided to fight for it.  I strongly believe there are invaluable lessons that we had to learn by being small and scrappy.”


And so the spark became the flame that is Tide Spin.


Backed by forward thinkers such as Mark Christenson (then Associate Marketing Director for Global Fabric FEI), Sundar Raman (Vice President of North American Fabric Care), and Shailesh Jejurikar (President of Global Fabric Care), VanHimbergen was given the okay to take a small budget and rent a small space, start little and learn fast.


The result?  Two and a half years later, Tide Spin is still spinning, still growing, and still innovating.  They’ve seen near double-digit growth month after month and are servicing 26 zip codes in downtown Chicago spanning from Rogers Park to the South Loop, including right here in 60601. Most recently Tide Spin has installed lockers at Coast, where the high rise has replaced their on-site dry cleaner with Tide Spin service.


Instead of leaving laundry with a doorman or in a package room, customers may simply leave their laundry in a Tide Spin locker and sign on to the app to request laundry pick up within a  two or eight-hour window.


And Coast is not their only preferred partnership; Tide Spin services customers and buildings throughout Lake Shore East, an area VanHimbergen knows well after living in the Aqua building himself for close to a year.[1] 


And what of Washio, the promising California start-up that was built around the wash-and-fold laundry concept?  August of 2016 they shut their doors, saying in a letter to customers, “The nature of start-ups is being innovative and venturing into uncharted territory—sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t.”


When asked about mistakes Tide Spin has made along the way, VanHimbergen points to glitches in quality and efficiency.  “It’s usually when we’ve tried to complicate things that we lose our way.  One of the mistakes Washio may have made was overcommitting to the being anywhere, anytime promise.  Laundry is a planned chore, not like transportation where you need it now.  So far, I think we’ve struck the right balance between serving the customer without overextending ourselves.”


That balance is not only keeping them afloat but propelling them forward.

“I’m proud everyday that we’ve made it this far.  When you’re constantly grinding through the day-to-day, you lose sight of all the progress.  We’ve built a P&G outpost office in the south loop of Chicago.  We’ve built this team.  We’ve learned a lot and we’re growing.  The company is energized by it as well.  It’s motivating that we’ve made it this far and we’re starting to inspire others within P&G that this is possible with a little tenacity and perseverance.”


And it’s not only fellow P&Gers looking to Tide Spin for motivation.  Since it’s inception, VanHimbergen has been asked to speak on innovation panels, corporate summits, and round table events for Discover, 1871 and ORC International.  Tide Spin has been featured in Built In Chicago and AE Marketing’s Brand Lab Series, and he’s been asked twice to guest lecture at Northwestern’s Kellogg School MBA class.


What is it that fascinates people about Tide Spin from a business perspective?  Just as VanHimbergen was amazed by shoemaker Annie Mohaupt’s willingness to start small and put in the hard work and patience it takes to grow bigger, the corporate world is intrigued by Procter and Gamble’s willingness to be a big business that starts small.]  


With Tide Spin, the leadership at Procter and Gamble have demonstrated that at 180 years old, a brand powerhouse like P&G can learn a lot from the humble start-up.  By planting VanHimbergen and his Tide Spin team in the heart of Chicago, P&G is showing consumers and investors alike that they are a major player in the ever-changing technology economy, and that with a little innovation and a lot of soap and water, the laundry business at P&G will continue to blossom and grow in whatever consumer-driven landscape spreads before them.



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