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College Startup Rethinks Laundry

A prepaid campus laundry service offers a lesson in entrepreneurship.
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Jeremy Young enrolled at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., to study art history. He ended up getting a crash course in business management and finance, thanks to a meeting of the entrepreneurship club he attended as a sophomore. "I joined on a whim and felt inspired to pitch an idea," recalls Young, now 24.

That idea--a prepaid laundry service for students--was inspired by similar services on other college campuses. With the support of the Hamilton entrepreneurship club, Young did some research and teamed up with four classmates to launch HillFresh Laundry.

"As full-time students we didn't want to raise the capital to purchase equipment and lease space, and it didn't make sense for us to manage a full-time laundry business," Young explains. "So we decided to be laundry brokers." After developing their business plan, the partners signed on with a local laundromat that was already providing wash/dry/fold services to another local college. That meant the company understood the demographic--and the founders didn't have to get their own hands dirty.

But before HillFresh Laundry could begin marketing to students, the team had to get permission from the administration to operate a business on campus. "We had to convince the school that we were going to be professional, have the right contracts and insurance and deliver on what we promised," Young says.

HillFresh Laundry got the go-ahead from the administration in 2011, and became the first for-profit student-run business to operate on the campus. "Their approach was sophisticated," recalls a Hamilton spokesperson. "Their entire business was planned out as if it were a major corporation, not a small, student-run business."

The team mailed promotional materials to all 1,800 students on campus. During the first month, 20 students signed on for one of three packages: $349 per semester for up to 12 pounds of clothing per week, $399 for 15 pounds or $499 for 20 pounds.

As word of the service spread, HillFresh Laundry added more customers, whose laundry is picked up on campus and returned--washed, dried and folded--the next day. In the first 18 months, the five founders recouped their initial investment of $800 apiece and started earning dividends. Their continued success depends on signing up incoming freshmen and retaining them all the way through graduation--which Young believes is possible, given the company's current retention rate of more than 90 percent. The biggest supporters of HillFresh Laundry are students who are juggling full class schedules, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs and, he says, "recognize the value of what we offer."

Young is working on a succession plan to ensure the business continues after he graduates this spring; he is also researching options to license the model to other colleges. Meanwhile, the company
is donating a portion of proceeds to the entrepreneurship club that helped it get started, a move that may support that next generation of managers. "Starting this business has given me the chance to experiment with entrepreneurship, with taking an idea and seeing it through," Young says. "Not many liberal-arts students have the opportunity to do that."