THE entrepreneurial spirit was glinting in Ed Relf’s eyes even as a schoolboy growing up in the St Anne’s district of Bristol in the 1980s.
As a pupil at St George’s Community School, he nearly put the school canteen out of business by responding to a healthy eating drive on the lunch menus by setting up his own tuck shop selling sweets, fizzy drinks and crisps. After three weeks of bringing in a healthy profit from his school peers, his headmaster forced him to stop trading.
There followed further flashes of serial entrepreneurship – from collecting and selling conkers to his school pals (a model he soon realised was too seasonal to be sustainable), through to setting up his school’s first school magazine and charging a cover price to keep fellow pupils – as well as teachers and parents – up to date with what was happening in the classrooms.
It’s little wonder then that his time studying for a degree in graphic design at the University of the West of England was short lived.
“I moved on,” the 38-year-old father-of-two recalls. “Or you could say, I dropped out. I had that entrepreneurial pull – I was impatient to get out there in the real world and start making money. I couldn’t face three or four years of more studying.”
It didn’t all go well.
“I became what you might call a serial entrepreneur,” he explains. “And of course, with that, I had my fair share of failures. But I kept trying. I had that spirit to keep trying.
Ed initially took a role with a growing gaming studio in Chipping Sodbury, moving to London when the firm moved to the capital a few years later.
His first big success as an entrepreneur was also in the gaming industry – with the formation of Mind Candy, the games studio that created Moshi Monsters.
“It was an incredible success,” he says. “Essentially anyone who has a child over the age of seven will be all too familiar with the Moshi Monsters format.”
But 15 years on from his first adventures as an entrepreneur, his latest business is growing at a rate even he couldn’t have imagined.
Just two years ago Ed was walking down a high street when he passed a traditional laundrette-cum-dry cleaners.
“You have an industry with 13,000 independent high street businesses and two or three big franchises, like Timpsons and Johnsons, but it struck me that there’d been no real innovation – these were businesses that had changed little in decades, and many of the family firms were more than 100 years old.
“I thought about how strange it was that here was an industry that still hadn’t yet been disrupted by technology,” he says. He quickly set himself to the idea of doing exactly that – and so Laundrapp was born.
Laundrapp brings to laundry what the big hitters of the gig economy – Uber and Deliveroo – bring to taxis and take aways.
The app can be easily downloaded by customers who can use it to arrange a time when their laundry or dry cleaning can be picked up from their home. Laundrapp then works with local, pre-existing laundry and dry cleaning firms to clean the items, before delivering them back.
It sounds like a simple idea – but it’s something nobody else was doing, hence Ed has seen an exponential growth – just 24 months from its launch, the service is now available in more than 100 towns and cities across the country, including Bristol, and Ed’s focus is now on going global with the brand.
The app focused platform has been named The Times’ business of the year and has been downloaded 250,000 times to date.
Before Christmas Laundrapp launched in New Zealand and Australia, and Ed is taking it to 15 other countries in the next few months. He says that by the end of next year it will be active as a franchise in more than 40 countries.
His ambitions for the app seem to know no bounds.
“Our competitor is not really the high street dry cleaners,” he says. “Our competitor in the years to come is going to be the domestic washing machine.
“We’ll make it easier for people to have their laundry picked up and brought back cleaned than it is to use a washing machine.”
The big difference between Laundrapp in the UK and other gig economy innovators like Deliveroo and Uber, is that Laundrapp does employ its own drivers and owns its own vans.
“We experimented a lot with the model,” he says. “But we quickly realised that customer service has to be key when it comes to laundry and dry cleaning services. So I realised quite early on that we’d need to employ our own drivers and make sure they were well trained. In that sense we’re much more the Ocado of dry cleaning and laundry than we are the Deliveroo or Uber.
“The big difference between providing laundry services than delivering take-away food is that you need to have quite a high level of contact between the driver and the customer. People will want to say, there’s a satin on this sleeve and so on – and our drivers will need to know what can and can’t be achieved.
“In that sense, our drivers also need to act as our shop window. They are the only direct point of contact with our customers, so it’s vital that the right level of customer service is always there.”
Ed returns home to Bristol every couple of weeks to see his family and says there is plenty to be excited about in the city.
“The environment for entrepreneurs, particularly tech start-ups, is improving all the time in Bristol. But the investment community is still in London – which is the main reason why I live in the capital. If I could come back to Bristol tomorrow, I would do so – and it was certainly a proud moment for me as a Bristolian when we launch the Laundrapp service in the city.”