A broken washer and a disappointing experience at the local Laundromat gave Louise the idea for Wash Day Laundry, where she provides customers with a clean and cheerful space to make laundry less of a chore.
Tell us a little about your background…
I am the oldest of three girls, born in Washington DC. I grew up in various parts of Africa: Nairobi, Kenya; Asmara, Ethiopia (now Eritrea); and Pretoria and Capetown, South Africa. I moved back to Alexandria, Virginia, for high school. My father was a diplomat and my mother was a homemaker.
I was married in 1988 to Emil Messano (who had four almost-grown children), and we had two daughters, Marianne and Sarah (now 23 and 21). We had 10 grandchildren by the time Emil died in 2001, after a long hospitalization following brain surgery. I remarried in 2011 to Michael Mann (who has three grown children and two granddaughters).
I graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Theatre Arts. My first job out of college was working for the Air Line Pilots Assocation (ALPA) in Washington DC as a clerk typist. I then became an animator for a start-up called Stowmar Enterprises. We made a film called I Go Pogo targeting the 1980 presidential election. I then worked close-captioning (editing) television for the hearing impaired at the National Captioning Institute. It was brand new technology. We captioned Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith and the ABC evening news live with Frank Reynolds.
In 1983, I joined Oakwood Worldwide as a Leasing Consultant and worked my way up through the ranks to become a Senior Regional Sales Manager. I spent 20 years based in Washington DC, handling multiple mid-Atlantic markets as the company expanded, and then moved with my daughters to Austin, Texas, to take on the central US territory. I was on the USO Metro Board of Directors for 10 years while in DC.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I thought about leaving the corporate world for several years before I finally took the plunge. My daughters were close to high school age, and my travel schedule was hectic. As a single parent at the time, I wanted to be closer to our home in Austin.
My “aha” moment came when the company revamped the commission program and made some other top management changes. My heart was not 100% in the game anymore, and I did not feel as passionate or effective in my work.
The other “sign” was when my washing machine broke. I lived in a rural area and the closest Laundromat was a 45-minute drive away. It was a depressing place, and I remember thinking that I could do better. I tucked that thought away until my daughters returned from summer camp with their footlockers filled with dirty clothes, and back we went to the Laundromat. That’s when I started writing a business plan for my idea.
What is your next act?
I co-founded Wash Day Laundry with two business partners in 2009, at the age of 53. Our mission is to be environmentally responsible and an asset to the community.
We have three locations, two in south Austin and one in Wimberley, Texas, which is a rural village about an hour’s drive southwest of Austin. We offer self- and full-service laundry and are open every day. We are fully attended, and full service includes wash and fold, load and leave, and pick-up and delivery options.
About half our clients are self-service, which means they do their own laundry. The other half is a combination of commercial accounts (restaurants, bed & breakfasts, student housing) and individuals who leave their clothes for wash and fold service. We believe our point of difference is having a business where our attendants greet customers, offer to assist them, interact with customers to make them feel welcome, and develop relationships.
We are also focused on being environmentally responsible (we are members of the City of Austin’s Green Business Leaders Program), so we recycle and use additive-free products and encourage customers to follow suit. We were vigilant about sustainability when we built and renovated our Laundromats.
I love having the freedom to do what I do well and to feel passion once again. I love being able to make decisions quickly. I love being able to work with people who feel ownership in the business (our fantastic attendants and managers). It was important for me to do something that was community-oriented.
How did you go from an idea to launching Wash Day Laundry with two partners?
Initially, everyone thought my idea was nuts but then agreed that it was a worthy (not frivolous) business. They knew how exhausted I was from the corporate world so they supported the idea of staying local.
The way our partnership came together was nothing short of an alignment of the universe! I was writing my business plan at a local bakery, along with a friend, and we were chatting about what I consider the fun parts (marketing), when a neighbor, Tom, popped in. I had not seen him in months, so he joined us to catch up. I told him that I had finally figured out what business I wanted to start, and he said, “I have an idea for a business, too, but I don’t have the time.” I asked what his business idea was, and Tom said, “Opening a Laundromat.” My friend gasped, and we all stared at each other (having NEVER discussed this idea before), and I held up the business plan. He looked shocked and said he had no idea I wanted to do this.
As it turned out, the Laundromat idea was for his partner, Jamie, who was in the dry cleaning business and had reached the pinnacle of his career because it was a family-owned business. Tom, Jamie, and I sat down four days later and “talked turkey.”
We formed our LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) in mid-2008, just as the economy was taking a major downward turn. If we had known how badly the markets would fall, I am not sure we would have moved forward. To me, that means that you cannot worry about the what-ifs. Anything can happen. Worrying about what might go wrong will keep you from trying anything new. We opened our first Laundromat about nine months later, in 2009, and acquired our other two Laundromats in 2011.
Because it took six months to build the first store, I started pre-marketing and networking full time, while my business partners handled the nuts and bolts of the building process. We joined the Coin Laundry Association and all the local Chambers and offered to speak to civic groups (Rotary, Lions Club) to get the word out. We researched our competition and set up our website and marketing strategy.
Why did you choose this next act?
I never considered any other option once I had the laundry bug. The way things fell into place with my business partners was a sign that this was the right move. I wanted a business that was recession-proof and practical — something that was need-to-have vs. nice-to-have. I would not have opened something like a jewelry store because I am way too practical, and to me, jewelry is a luxury, not a necessity.
What challenges did you encounter?
UGH. The list is long. I remember very clearly how I looked around and thought, “How hard can this be? Just buy some machines, plug them in, buy a couple of TVs and folding tables, hire an attendant who can smile and put an ad in the paper…EASY.” I still smile thinking about how naïve I was! Let’s just say that it is a bit more complex than my initial vision…
The initial challenges had to do with construction — permitting, coordinating sub-contractors, dealing with people not doing what they say they are going to do, escalating expenses, everything taking longer than we thought and costing more than we had budgeted — the usual start-up drama.
Still, I never once thought about giving in. I was so excited and so convinced that this was going to be a great business for the community. My business partners and I kept each other going. We are all very different, so we shore up each other’s weaknesses.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I am bossier than I thought. I am easily frustrated when things break (a constant in our business). I am also very accustomed to working strategically, not tactically. My partners were much more focused on day-to-day operations, while I wanted to plan future steps. I am also very intolerant of working with vendors who do not deliver as promised.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife and maybe even interested in opening a storefront business?
Go for it. If you don’t, you will always have that unfulfilled regret.
Remember that this is a business and not a hobby, so get yourself a business adviser (we use the Texas State Small Business Development Center Network) and be accountable.
Know thyself. Everyone has weaknesses and strengths. The great thing about growing older is the wisdom I have gained. I wish I had known everything I know now when I started my corporate career! Figure out your talents and aptitudes, find someone different than you (often difficult to work with, but what you need), and either outsource to them or make them your partner.
Fortunately, my business partners and I are very different. It makes for the occasional disagreement, but ultimately we each do our own thing and it keeps the business balanced. I handle PR, marketing, social media, community relations, and anything to do with new business development. Jamie handles operations – hiring, coaching, training, running the stores, deliveries etc. He also works in the stores if employees are out. Tom handles finances and any construction-related items and coordinates keeping the Laundromats clean and the equipment running well. Tom is also a general contractor, so he has another business.
Our disagreements usually revolve around our differing communication styles, not our vision for the business. I am a planner, Jamie flies by the seat of his pants, and Tom is very structured and likes to have the same schedule every week. Tom also does not believe in technology, and he does not like change, so he is suspicious of online banking and apps. It is difficult to convince him to try new things. Jamie wants to know every detail about something new before he tries it, and I am more likely to go on my gut instinct.
We really get along well, all in all. We let the person “in charge” on a particular area make the final decision – they do not question my social media decisions (after we agree on a budget), and I don’t question what type of machines we purchase or who we hire. I think it would be difficult to be in a business partnership (like a personal relationship) if you are not willing to compromise and let go sometimes. None of us is a control freak.
When it comes to our employees, we have been so fortunate. We have only had to fire one person, early on. Tom has a formula that shows daily income based on water usage and is amazingly accurate, so we can tell if our numbers are off (which is how we knew the person we fired was skimming…). Our manager at our Oak Hill location used to work with Jamie and comes from the dry cleaning industry. She is amazing, works hard, and is like a family member. If she finds money in people’s clothing, which happens ALL THE TIME, it goes into a bag and is returned to the customer. We have made it clear that we have a zero-tolerance rule about that. Our manager at our Brodie location is also amazing. She once told us that she gets offers all the time to wash clothes on the side for people, but she tells them that she likes her job and will not do anything to risk the trust we have placed in her.
Think cooperation rather than competition. The depressing Laundromat that spurred my idea has since been renovated and is now a worthy competitor. The owners also have three Laundromats and focus mostly on central Austin. We have a friendly relationship and refer business back and forth, as we do with another owner who has two Laundromats in north Austin.
We have learned that in our industry, it is very important to make sure you have a 20-year lease or a combination of lease terms that will allow you that long of a span of time. It is too expensive to move equipment. Definitely hire a real estate attorney before you sign a lease. Be willing to walk away if your terms are not met. Location is everything. Make sure you clearly spell out parking agreements and signage. Also, be sure that a competitor cannot set up in the same center.
In order to offer excellent service, it’s important that you feel empathy towards your customers: Put yourself in their shoes so you can better understand their stress or mood or even perhaps their irritation.
And don’t forget to take care of yourself or it is difficult to help others.
What resources do you recommend?
My corporate background was in sales management, so I had tons of sales management books. I personally think that every employee is always selling, so your business culture needs to focus on knowing all the different ways to sell, i.e. offering add-ons (“Would you like fries with your burger?”).
Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy is an excellent book about procrastination. It is also a quick and easy read.
From Vendor to Business Resource: Transforming the Sales Force for the New Era of Selling by Jerry Stapleton is one of my favorite books about selling – it is full of common sense.
I also like reading quick articles like Planet Laundry’s “Wash with Wally” tips column.
I have also heard about a book called Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman that sounds excellent because it addresses the issue of business owners trying to do too much and how to be strategic and learn to work on the business and not in the business.
We use Constant Contact for our social media/marketing; they offer tons of free and inexpensive seminars and webinars. I think they’re great.
I was also fortunate enough to be part of a Mastermind Group. It happened organically and was comprised of three other business owners. We met every two weeks for two hours to discuss our business successes and concerns. We were together for almost four years and became great mentors for one another.
Consider meeting with SCORE or any other organization of retired business professionals.
Definitely join any local small business associations. We have AIBA (Austin Independent Business Alliance) — which offers free seminars all the time. Also, join your industry association (Coin Laundry Association in our case). Subscribe to relevant websites: I like Small Business Brief and Duct Tape Marketing. Talk to other business owners, even if they are in a very different type of business.
I also think it is very important to volunteer in the community and rise to the occasion when you can offer services for those in need. We donate gift cards to schools, churches, and civic associations for their silent auction fundraisers. We also donate our services free to the community in times of crisis (for example, the 2011 Oak Hill fires and, more recently, the Wimberley Memorial Day floods – check out the video on our website).
What’s next for you?
I hope to do more travel with my husband. My mind is open to other opportunities depending on what might come along. I would enjoy helping our kids and young members of the community structure a business if they so choose. I also want to continue my volunteer work with the Texas State Library’s Talking Book Program.
Contact Louise Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org,