Marieke van der Graaf is the founder and owner of Laundrylicious in Whittier, California. The company currently has four locations that serve numerous cities in the Orange County area of Southern California.
What was life like growing up?
I started my first business at eight years old. I worked 60 hours a week at 16 years old, not because I had to or because I needed the money. I was curious to learn how businesses worked and what jobs there were available for me to do when I grew up. I loved being of value in society. My parents had a moving company growing up, and so entrepreneurship and the struggles of a small business owner were what I saw daily. I went to college and learned what I needed to do to fix my dad’s company (marketing & sales). I did not get that chance, and life led me in a different direction.
I was born and raised in The Netherlands, and like many dry cleaners, I am an immigrant. I am here on an E2 visa since 2007. I have also lived and worked in Brazil, Romania and Cambodia.
Take us back to the genesis of Laundrylicious.
Laundrylicious started as a laundry valet service. Initially, all orders came in online and that’s how I could quickly grow. Digital marketing is the language I speak and what I love to do. A laundry business was started merely as my marketing playground to show my customers what I can do on marketing. So I could let my creativity loose in marketing instead of being bound by what my customers wanted and didn’t want.
When picking up laundry, initially, we outsourced it to a laundry service company, as my focus was just on the new customer acquisition and superb customer experience (website, phone and delivery). Our customers weren’t always as pleased with the quality, and we weren’t able to change that much, so one of my drivers at the time offered to do it at her home and see what the customers thought. We didn’t receive any feedback the week she did it, so after a week, we went back to the laundry service, and then the phone started ringing with complaints: “Last week it was well wrapped and looked perfect, and now it doesn’t.” So that was the start of doing laundry “in-house.”
How has your business grown and evolved over the years?
When picking up laundry, dry cleaning was often added, sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose. So we started bringing that to a dry cleaner after researching the better dry cleaners in the area. Speed was critical, but also quality. When one of my delivery drivers told me we were a dry cleaner’s biggest customer but weren’t always getting the priority treatment we wanted, we knew it was time for our own dry cleaning facility.
At that time, I had been shopping around to take over a dry cleaner, and I could purchase one with a good friend who was working with me. We became 50/50 partners in a dry cleaner in Fullerton. The idea was to do all the laundry production there. Still, the facility seemed too small and was already at capacity, so I kept the laundry production at a laundromat, where I had moved my business two years before that. In December 2019, my real estate broker found me a deal of another wet cleaning facility where the previous owner had already left, and I could take over by signing a new lease. That’s where I was able to move my laundry production.
In the summer of 2020, during the pandemic, two similar businesses (dry cleaning plants) showed up being available, and I took those over at no cost as well. So, we quickly grew to 4 locations during the pandemic. The last three stores I own 100% as my business partner decided to focus on the first one we purchased together.
What are some of the challenges and obstacles you have faced?
I’m learning as I go, but I’m happy with how things progress. I have been a business owner for 20-plus years, but laundry and dry cleaning are new. I love the world I got into, but I depend on great, experienced team members to deliver a high-quality product.
I started the laundry business while I was going through a divorce. My ex-husband left suddenly and unexpectedly to Thailand to create a new life and left me in California with four kids. So while I was building up a business, I was also going through a difficult divorce process while being a single mom taking care of my kids 100% of the time.
At the same time, I got the best part out of the divorce: my kids. And now my oldest son, at age 18, is working in one of my stores full-time while studying. He’s a great asset!
Who also deserved credit in your business journey?
I had a friend who helped invest my 50% in the business I bought. I had no money and many expenses coming out of a divorce, so without that help, I wouldn’t be where I am today. My business partner Chris is a great person to work with, and I am very thankful he joined me in this endeavor of dry cleaning.
Then I am very grateful to my team members, who, especially now during Covid-19-19, have been people I can rely upon. The wealth of experience they bring is a significant asset to the company.
Can you recall some proud moments you have experienced?
We serve so many incredible clients that I am very proud of, including the California Highway Patrol, LAPD and Hilton Hotels. We were invited to do dry cleaning and laundry at huge sports events. Our clients include the Japanese National soccer team training camp, HOAG Classic, a professional golf event where we had an onsite dry cleaning boutique and hockey for Harvard University. We have served celebrities, Disney actresses, YouTube stars and basketball players. Actress Christy Carlson Romano (Disney) promoted us on Instagram.
How do you measure success?
I set up my business so it can run without me. I am still in the early growth phase of my company, so it’s very often hands on deck for me and taking care of fires wherever they happen. Some team members are new to the industry, which has its challenges, but I have been able to travel a lot with my kids over the past few years. And that’s a significant goal for me.
I also make sure I create enough time for my kids, I have four kids at home and I have been a licensed foster parent. I start my day at home slowly with my kids. While my team starts delivering and opening the stores, I leave my house with my kids late, as that time is crucial to me. And that is what always will be my priority as much as I can.
Share some essential qualities you possess that help drives your success.
I am determined and do not give up. I know how to build a brand and I know I will succeed. I am only 41 years old, still pretty young compared to most owners in the business. I am proactive and make things happen. I am not waiting for customers to come to me.
I am a rebel and do things my way, with the customer top of mind. I constantly ask myself, “What does the customer want and how can I deliver that?”
Are there any lessons you have learned?
I would have gotten into it earlier, but you can’t pull on the grass to make it grow faster. Life happened the way it did, and I am thankful for where I am. I started with no money to get my business started. Now I have built a small empire in Southern California with stores in Whittier, Fullerton, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. I grow without a prominent investor or any savings to draw on. It’s just hard work and a bit of luck, focusing on marketing, building a solid brand and a great customer experience, so I am very proud of what I have accomplished over the years. There is more to come.
Is there any advice you would give to a fellow owner/operator?
Always learn from your customer. Ask them questions. Deliver what they want and where they want it.
What do you see in our industry’s future?
We will see more of a shakeout over the following years. Some will not survive Covid-19, which is probably affecting our industry until the end of 2021.
Some dry cleaners have been using Covid-19 to shift to do more laundry and offer delivery services. Others are not changing and merely survive off of PPP and EIDL loans. Other cleaners are making necessary changes and some are not; after Covid-19, it won’t be pretty for everyone. Those funds will stop and if their customers aren’t coming back because your competition is now serving them, you have lost the game.
I know of some tremendous dry cleaner brands around the country, but there are still many mom and pop shops that haven’t made any changes since the 80s and won’t be making them now. Why would they if they never did?
There are a lot of dry cleaners owned by baby boomers. When those baby boomers are trying to sell their businesses, it’s going to be complicated. Many won’t be able to sell or for less than they had hoped. But the prices have been going down for dry cleaners over the years. Most younger generations don’t want to go into dry cleaning; it’s not a sexy industry. And unless you grew up in it, it’s not a career move often taken. It will be tough for them to sell it for a price they are excited about.
What do you envision for Laundrylicious?
I have big plans. I want to take over more locations when the opportunity is right. There are many options right now and most aren’t exciting. For me, expansion is to get a plant that supports our delivery network. When the income from pick up and delivery in that area is enough to pay for the plant, the walk-ins are a bonus.
I have plans to turn my stores into experiential stores. Something to wait until after Covid-19 to test those ideas, because our stores are pretty empty right now and
I am not in a hurry to expand. During Covid-19, the margins are slim, if any. But I hope to see Laundrylicious all over the globe someday. Because I feel anyone who can afford it should not have to think about laundry anymore, but look their best and walk in their closet always to find clean clothes to wear. To serve the world like that is my mission. Do the things you love; we’ll take care of your laundry.