Like many business ideas, the conceit for Juliette, a tech-enabled laundry service in New York City, started out as a way to resolve a personal pain point for its founder. It was 2013 and Rechelle Balanzat, then a marketing exec at a startup, could get her dinner delivered to her door but she couldn’t get her dry cleaning as easily.
“I’d call my cleaners and ask if I could get my laundry and dry cleaning picked up and delivered,” recalls the now 35-year-old entrepreneur. “Sometimes they would, sometimes they wouldn’t. That was a lightbulb moment.”
A year later, she had founded the boutique dry cleaning and laundry business that today offers its customers easy pick up and delivery through an app, along with more recent upgrades including artificial intelligence-assisted texting, GPS tracking, and ETA updates. Balanzat says the tools give customers greater peace of mind that they know where their orders are at all times through the laundering process, but it also just helps keep up with the competition.
“When we went to market in 2014, just having an iPhone app was innovative,” she says. “Then you fast-forward a few years, and everyone has an app.” You have to keep innovating, she says.
Balanzat’s reverence for technology has been a fixture since the early days of social media. In 2009, she launched her own New York City-based social media agency, Johnny Social. At the time, Facebook was in the early stages of expanding beyond its initial audiences of college and high school students–and she saw that as an opportunity. She ran her business for a little less than four years, but ultimately hit a bump in the road. “I’d signed on some huge clients, but then they ate up all my time and I couldn’t take on any new clients,” she says. “Learning how to build a company that could scale was a real challenge–ultimately, I was just a high-end freelancer.”
Once she made the decision to shut down her social media agency, she joined an early-stage tech company called Romeo, overseeing its marketing. She, again, focused on social media. It was there that she became acquainted with the tech world, and made connections with engineers–one of whom she eventually persuaded to help her build Juliette’s app.
But launching Juliette wasn’t quite as simple as just creating an app that could streamline laundry pickup and delivery. Sure, Balanzat considers Juliette a tech company first and foremost–but she also had to make sure that orders were washed to the highest standards. “At first I thought I could outsource the cleaning to a laundromat, but I quickly realized it’s a trust issue,” she says. “I couldn’t just hand these clothes over to anyone.” After cold-calling a number of local laundry businesses, she made a deal with one to rent out the space for Juliette’s orders. Because the company didn’t launch with a capital investment, these kinds of opportunities to cut corners were critical in sustaining the business.
While Balanzat has managed to raise some funding, it hasn’t been easy. She first tried to secure outside investment around 2017, and was met with rejection. In 2019, after opening Juliette’s flagship location on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a second location in the Bronx, she tried again. “It took me two years to really establish myself and have strong enough footing and to ask, ‘Why would we be great partners?’ instead of trying to seek approval and validation,” she says. While she declined to share the amount she’s raised to date, she says she’s primarily raised funds through personal connections and people who directly approach her, rather than going through venture capital firms. Her investors include the model Alexandre Cunha.
In 2020, however, things took a turn. Because dry cleaning services have a considerably higher profit margin than wash-and-fold laundry, Covid-19 hit the business hard. New Yorkers still needed their laundry done, but they weren’t laundering their suits and cocktail dresses anymore. Juliette lost 90 percent of its annual revenue in 2020 and had to lay off 70 percent of its staff. “I really had to ask, ‘Are we going to make it through this?'” Balanzat says.
Luckily, she had a strong network of entrepreneurs to lean on during this period, as a graduate of Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Women Initiative, an educational program for female entrepreneurs, and a fellow of the Tory Burch Foundation, which helps female founders of early-stage companies grow and scale through mentorship and networking opportunities. Balanzat secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to get through the worst of the pandemic, and by the fourth quarter of 2021, she says the business stopped “hemorrhaging money.”
While Juliette’s staff is at just 70 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, Balanzat says that the company is poised start a hiring phase. This year, the company plans to open three more locations in Manhattan. Prior to the pandemic, Balanzat says that dry cleaning made up about 60 percent of orders, and 40 percent were wash-and-fold. Today, that balance is closer to 50-50. The average order frequency for a Juliette customer is once a week, and the average order price is $50. Balanzat declined to share the company’s annual revenue.
Despite the reams of laundry industry flame outs in recent years–among them Washio and FlyCleaners–-Juliette’s competition remains stiff. The San Francisco-based dry cleaning and laundry startup Rise, founded in 2013, has raised $25 million and offers similar services in eight metro areas, including New York City.
But Balanzat thinks that Juliette has the potential to stand out with its luxury appeal–and that’s the reasoning behind its black velvet hangers and its distinctive branding. Juliette’s app and website are designed with black and white photography that evokes fashion editorials–a stark difference from the straightforward, mass-appeal design of Rinse’s app. Balanzat wants Juliette to be recognizable and is placing her bet that she can attract customers that place value in a luxury experience. “We’re a bit more premium,” she says. “New Yorkers love their clothes–they don’t want to send their Burberry sweaters and Donna Karen dresses to just any cleaner. That’s the brand value I built the company on–and that’s still our brand value today.”