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Disrupting the Dhobi: India’s Laundry Renaissance

Disrupting the Dhobi: India’s Laundry Renaissance

With the creation of UClean in 2016, Aunabh Sinha set out to disrupt centuries of established systems.

Few franchise brands set out to reimagine a concept that has “existed since the advent of civilization”, but that’s precisely what Arunabh Sinha did with the creation of laundry franchise UClean in 2016.

Until this point, southeast Asia had a very strong dhobi culture; a culture that still dominates the laundry market to this very day. Within this entrenched setup, a dhobi – or a “bicycle entrepreneur”, as Sinha puts it – comes to a client’s house, collects their clothes, and after three or so days, returns them washed.

It’s a model that has worked for thousands of years, but in the modern age of cleanliness and virus-prevention, there are some lingering doubts which leave room for a fresh new take.

“In that interim, what happens to your clothes is something that you’re not privy to,” says Sinha. “How are they getting washed? What chemicals are being used? What water is being used? How are your clothes handled? There’s zero visibility to it. You trust him because there’s no better option.”

A better option may finally have arrived, however. While dhobi culture is certainly here to stay, with the ‘unorganized’ Indian laundry market still accounting for 98 per cent of the sector, UClean has managed to carve a considerable niche since its 2016 debut. In January 2020, for example, it was named as the fastest retail band to reach 200 franchisees in India, and in October, it opened 15 locations in one month; a nice way to celebrate the brand’s fourth anniversary.

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME

Although a franchise’s initial strategy may set out to disrupt an industry, a fair heaping of luck and coincidence go a long way toward dominating a sector. Both of these attributes are found in UClean’s origin story – though relevant expertise was invaluable, too.

“In the past, I ran a franchising company by the name of FranGlobal, which helped international brands to enter into India, and help Indian brands to expand internationally,” says Sinha. “I later became the CEO of a company called Treebo Hotels; India’s second-largest budget hotel chain. While working at Treebo, almost 60 to 70 per cent of escalations that were coming to me were primarily because of laundry.

“Hoteliers used the local dhobi, but they didn’t provide quality, so they’d move on to the second and then third. Because these guys are your local mom and pop operators who don’t have the chemicals or machinery or know-how, none of them are able to deliver the quality or the standard that we were expecting.

“The biggest eureka moment I had was that if I don’t do this now, then somebody else will do it later on.”

This ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality is the driver behind many of the disruptive concepts that we see today, both in and outside the world of franchising. The taxi industry was viewed as prohibitively expensive and unreliable by customers, so the founders of Uber introduced their alternative in 2009. Similarly, when Pizza Hut recognized the power of the internet for F&B, it launched online pizza delivery before anybody else could in 1994.

UNMISTAKABLY INDIAN

While the conception of the UClean model has universal roots, its execution since then has been unmistakably focused on the Indian market. The brand’s financials are even pinned at amounts designed to remain appealing to domestic entrepreneurs.

The biggest eureka moment I had was that if I don’t do this now, then somebody else will do it later on”

“Because I had prior franchising experience, I understood that in India, the sweet spot for investment is somewhere around £15,000 [roughly $20,000],” says Sinha. “That is where you’ll find 95 per cent of franchise seekers, who are looking to invest between £12,000 and £15,000. The moment that the investment goes above that, your funnel shrinks really rapidly.”

In addition to its bespoke financial structure, UClean’s success and its dominance as a disruptor brand can be partly attributed to a case of right place, right time.

“By that time, fatigue had been created by traditional franchise businesses,” says Sinha. “India has an oversupply of restaurants, salons, gyms; all the international brands from around the world are present in India in these sectors, as well as fantastic home-grown brands. I felt that we were there at the right time and the right place; investors were looking for something different.”

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