Cleaning up with Wake Wash
What began five years ago as a classroom assignment to start and run a business for three days and $40 has become one of the hottest ventures among the next generation of entrepreneurs at Wake Forest University.
Wake Wash is a student-run business that offers laundry and dry-cleaning services to students. More importantly, it fosters an entrepreneurial spirit in a liberal arts setting and teaches real-world business skills such as how to negotiate pricing, create a business plan, build a customer base and work with vendors and employees.
“It was a tight bidding war,” said Alex Smerecniak (’14), a finance major from Red Wing, Minn., and one of four Wake Wash co-owners. “Three teams were bidding for ownership earlier this year, with one off-campus proposal. But the owners who were graduating said they wanted to offer a new set of students the same opportunity they’d had to run Wake Wash while balancing their education. We learned a lot about negotiation, and the value of solid financials and legal contracts.”
Wake Wash offers weekly, bimonthly and dry clean only packages to Wake Forest students, both on and off campus. Students can purchase the services for a year or by the semester. The company picks up dirty laundry at the door, delivers it to a local cleaners for washing and folding or dry cleaning, and then returns the clean items.
Approximately 120 customers currently use the service – a 33 percent increase over last semester – and students are already signing up for 2013 packages.
“The way the founders set it up is incredibly smart,” Smereczniak said. “Once we hired independent student contractors to help with pickups and deliveries, the service has been running smoothly.”
Co-owner Quentin Robert (’15), a mathematical economics major from Switzerland, agrees. “We had 70 students sign up in two days at the beginning of the semester. It took a few weeks to get some of our systems in place and we had to do almost all the work ourselves. It’s been stressful at times, so it’s great that Alex and I are such good friends.”
Unlike many colleges and universities that teach entrepreneurship only to graduate or professional students in a business school setting, Wake Forest offers courses for the entrepreneurship and social enterprise minor to undergraduate and graduate students, no matter what their major is. It’s the largest and fastest-growing minor on campus today.
In its third generation of ownership, Wake Wash shows the close-knit partnership between entrepreneurial students and the Wake Forest Center for Innovation Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE).
“I think it’s the high-touch model Wake Forest has,” said Polly Black, center’s director. “The students have easy access to faculty because we are teaching the courses and interested in mentoring them. We not only motivate them to apply what they learn in class to real life situations, but help them develop those opportunities.”
The new owners of Wake Wash say faculty mentors have helped them not only run this business smoothly, but also consider new opportunities to grow. “We’ve applied for a seed grant to expand Wake Wash to other campuses, and have already had conversations with four prospects,” Robert said. “We plan to offer dry cleaning services to faculty and staff members in spring 2013 semester as we begin to branch out.”
While Smereczniak, Robert and anthropology major Grant Ruhl (’14), from Brentwood, Tenn., do the hands-on work with Wake Wash this semester, they have a fourth owner who is studying in Shanghai this fall. Tyler Leung (’14), an international business and Chinese language and culture major from Hong Kong, says while he is not as involved in the day-to-day operations right now, he is planning for the future. “Due to the new three year residence policy, we hope and expect to retain those customers who usually discontinue using Wake Wash because they move off campus,” Leung said. He plans to take on more marketing duties and focus on growth when he returns to campus.
How do the students balance running a laundry enterprise while taking classes full time?
Smereczniak added, “I’m getting as organized as I possibly can. It’s an attitude my dad has instilled in me – to front load my tasks. I’m following his advice to work now, play later.”
“It’s all about prioritizing,” Robert said. “We’re taking harder classes now focused on our majors. I’m getting in the habit of doing things as they come along, just as any entrepreneur would.”