ALL WASHED UP

The ultimate symbol of the Uber-for-X bubble is out of business

Obsession
Getting There
Obsession
Getting There

Make more room in the Uber-for-X graveyard. On-demand laundry service Washio recently informed customers that the service would shut down as of Aug. 29, TechCrunch reported today.

“We generated millions in revenue and hundreds of thousands of orders, but the nature of startups is being innovative and venturing into uncharted territory: sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t,” Washio’s co-founders wrote in a note cited by TechCrunch. “No more orders will be accepted and outstanding orders will be returned promptly to customers.”

Washio launched in 2013 with a few million dollars in angel funding and the following June landed $10.5 million in a Series A investment. Those years were peak Uber-for-X, as entrepreneurs raced to replicate the formula that was working so well for the ride-hailing industry: using a smartphone app to connect customers with legions of independently contracted task-doers. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the frothy laundry-tech scene. By mid-2014, Washio’s competitors included but were not limited to: FlyCleaners, Laundry Locker, Rinse, Sudzee, Sfwash, and Bizzie Box.

In a May 2014 profile for New York Mag, Jessica Pressler anointed Washio the ultimate symbol of on-demand-mania gone too far:

Remember the scrub board? One imagines people were thrilled when that came along and they could stop beating garments on rocks, but then someone went ahead and invented the washing machine, and everyone had to have that, followed by the electric washing machine, and then the services came along where, if you had enough money, you could pay someone to wash your clothes for you, and eventually even this started to seem like a burden—all that picking up and dropping off—and the places offering delivery, well, you had to call them, and sometimes they had accents, and are we not living in the modern world? “We had this crazy idea,” says [Washio CEO Jordan] Metzner, “that someone should press a button on their phone and someone will come and pick up their laundry.”

In the two short years since, several of the laundry founders who were once so bullish on the press-a-button future have been hung out to dry. Prim, another 2013 entrant into the laundry race, shut down in January 2014. Homejoy, a related Uber-for-home-cleaning startup, closed up shop last July. FlyCleaners is still pressing along in New York but has earned a reputation for high prices and poor service. Unlike Uber, which gave consumers a better ride option than taxis at a cheaper price, these laundry apps are and were middlemen selling convenience at a premium, and for a service most people use far less frequently than transportation.

Elsewhere in Uber-for-X land, on-demand groceries startup Instacart has struggled to get its model right, and delivery startups like Postmates and DoorDash are failing to make instant-anything cheap. These companies—Uber included—have also learned that even “asset-light” businesses can be cash-intensive to run. At launch, many had easy access to money from venture capitalists and relied on expensive subsidies to attract both customers and workers. Since the fourth quarter of last year, an abrupt decline in funding has made that model untenable for all but the richest on-demand startups.

Of course hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, something Metzner himself told Pressler in 2014:

“In the middle of it, you can’t really tell if you are in a bubble or if you are just in a successful time. Because, like, Facebook went out and paid $19 billion for Whats­App. That actually happened.”

Washio did not respond to a request for comment.

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