We earn commissions if you shop through the links below. Read more

Mort Fertel on Building Poplin into a Laundry Leader

Written by:

Carolyn Young is a business writer who focuses on entrepreneurial concepts and the business formation. She has over 25 years of experience in business roles, and has authored several entrepreneurship textbooks.

Mort Fertel on Building Poplin into a Laundry Leader

In this insightful interview, we sit down with Mort Fertel, CEO and Co-Founder of Poplin, to delve into the journey and mechanics of this revolutionary laundry service. From its inception to becoming a nationwide phenomenon, Fertel shares the inspiration behind Poplin and the strategies employed for its remarkable growth. We explore the operational challenges of managing a vast network of Laundry Pros, the critical role of technology in streamlining operations, and the rigorous quality control measures ensuring customer satisfaction. Fertel also discusses Poplin’s approach to workforce management, customer acquisition, and standing out in the competitive laundry service landscape. Moreover, he sheds light on the company’s sustainability initiatives, the impact of customer feedback on service adaptation, and future expansion plans. His insights extend to advice for budding entrepreneurs and how Poplin navigated the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting resilience and innovation in a service-based business.

Inception and Motivation Behind Poplin

SBS – What was the main motivation behind Poplin?

Mort – Poplin started because of a comment my wife made in 2017. She was home with our five kids buried in laundry and said, “This is crazy. I can tap an app and get to the airport and FaceTime someone on the other side of the world, but I’m still doing laundry like my grandmother.”

As always, she was right. Technology has transformed every aspect of our lives, making it all so fast and easy, except for this chore that takes the longest that we hate the most. It’s shocking if you think about it. We’re in the middle of a technological revolution, yet there’s been no innovation in this space since the washer and dryer a hundred years ago. And as a result, in America, we’re spending 13 billion hours and $75 billion a year doing something no one wants to do.

My son was around 16 years old at the time. He was a typical teenager, saying: “Look, Mom, I’m not helping you with the laundry, but I can solve this problem for you. I’ll build you an app.” We thought he was kidding. Somehow, he figured out how to do it. He saw what Uber was doing, and he started the research on how to build a tech stack like Uber’s — and he did it. That’s how we launched the business in 2018 in Baltimore. Since then, we have scaled it to over 500 cities nationwide and 8,000 zip codes. We’re the first and only nationwide laundry service company.

Overcoming Operational Challenges

SBS – What were the biggest operational challenges when you started it and when it spread nationwide?

Mort – Well, there is a lot. We essentially created something from nothing. Nothing like this ever existed. So, to create something like this and have it function and operate at the scale we have now achieved, there were enormous operational challenges.

You’ve got to be able to recruit the laundry pros in all the different areas that we service. Then, you have to be able to drive adoption on the customer side. You have to get customers to want the service. Then, there’s all of the technology between the two to make that match and facilitate that transaction on two apps (the customer’s got one app, and the laundry pro has another).

Journey from Concept to Functionality

SBS – How much time did it take from when your son came up with that idea to the app becoming functional?

Mort – It became functional in about a year. Then, it took about two years to perfect it and get down all the systems, policies, and procedures to get the bugs out of the apps. After that, it took about a year to scale it nationwide.

Funding and Investment Strategies

SBS – Did you provide funding when you started it or ask for other investments?

Mort – Initially, it was self-funded. Then, in March of 2022, we closed the $10 million seed round. 

Ensuring Consistent Quality and Customer Satisfaction

SBS – How do you ensure consistent quality and customer satisfaction across a large distributed network?

Mort – There’s not one short, simple answer to that question. There are dozens of things that we do to address quality control and to make sure that there is consistency of service delivered amongst over 100,000 laundry pros nationwide. Consistency of service throughout the nation is important.

Two of the main things we do that contribute to it are distributing information to the laundry pros via articles and videos and creating an algorithm that monitors their performance on dozens of factors we’ve educated them about. That algorithm rates the laundry pros based on their performance and rating, determining whether they get orders.

Technological Integration in Operations

SBS – Can you tell me more about the role of technology in managing and streamlining your operations?

Mort – It’s incredibly important. We’re the largest laundry service company in the world. We don’t own a washer. We don’t own a dryer. We don’t inventory any detergent. We’re a technology company. It’s like Uber, the largest transportation company. They don’t own a car. Airbnb is the largest hospitality company in the world. They don’t own a room.

So, in the new economy, where marketplaces dominate industries, we are a peer-to-peer marketplace like Uber, Airbnb, Instacart, and DoorDash. These marketplaces, make no mistake about it, they’re technology companies. That is certainly the case for us. You’re asking, what role does technology play? It plays every role. We’re a technology company. That’s what we are, and that’s what we do.

Evolution of Customer Acquisition Strategy

SBS – How has your customer acquisition strategy changed over time?

Mort – It hasn’t changed so much. The most important and best way to acquire new customers is to build a great product. If you build a great product, then it goes viral. People use the referral program, and you don’t have to pay so much for customer acquisition. Customers come because they love the service. They’re telling their friends and family, and it’s spreading organically. That’s always been Poplin’s most important source of customer acquisition, and it always will be.

Poplin is a magical experience. People have been burdened by doing laundry for generations. Finally, there is freedom and victory. The way to achieve freedom and victory over laundry is through Poplin. So, when people experience it, they just want to share this magical experience with everybody that they know, and that’s really how the company’s grown. What’s important for entrepreneurs to understand (and what sounds so trite to say) is that word of mouth is the best form of marketing. Everybody says that, and everybody knows that. But how many people take it to heart and understand what that means?

That means that the product or service you’re offering must be an earthquake experience for your user. It must be so magical and unbelievable that they just can’t stop talking about it. It’s easy and trite to say word of mouth is the best. But how do you trigger that word-of-mouth process?

Hiring and Retention of Laundry Pros

SBS – How do you find and retain your laundry pros? How do you make them feel satisfied and happy at the workplace?

Mort – First of all, to be clear, our laundry pros are not employees. They are independent contractors. They’re gig workers, just like your Uber driver. The answer to this question is exactly the same as the previous one.

We have two customers because we’re a two-sided marketplace. So, on one side of the marketplace are the customers who are outsourcing their laundry to us, and on the other side are the laundry pros who are doing the laundry. We’re the technology company between making the connection and providing the technology that facilitates the transaction. We have two different users, and they’re both our customers.

On the supply side (laundry pros), we also have to create this earthquake product experience. We have to make this the best gig work available on the planet so that people want to do it and tell their friends and family about it. We do even less advertising and marketing on the supply side than we do on the demand side, and that’s because it’s such a unique gig work experience.

Working from home is not so unique, but what’s unique about this work-from-home gig is that you don’t have to be tied to a desk. If you think about it, for every other work-from-home opportunity available in the world, you will be sitting at a desk behind a computer. This is the first work-from-home gig that allows you to be active and free. You can fold the laundry from anywhere you want. Of course, you must put the laundry in the washer and dryer, wherever the washer and dryer is. That only takes a few minutes. That’s not the time-consuming part of the work. The time-consuming part of the work is the folding and the packing. That can be done from anywhere in the home.

Many of our laundry pros are stay-at-home moms who must be active. They’re moving around the house to different rooms, keeping an eye on the kids, taking them to soccer practice, or going next door to help somebody. You don’t have that flexibility if you’re working from home from behind a desk. You’re pretty much tied to the desk during your working hours. Here, you could be in the middle of folding, stop and take the kid to soccer practice, make dinner, and then come back to it. Flexibility in working from home is very, very attractive to certain people.

So again, the answer is to provide this earthquake experience that is so magical for people that they tell their family and friends, and the good word spreads.

Unique Proposition of Poplin

SBS – What makes Poplin different from the other laundry services in the US?

Mort – It’s multiple things. For the first one, let’s look at an example. If you want to stay in a hotel, there are independently owned and operated hotels in every city, and you could stay in one if you wanted to, but you have no idea who’s operating this hotel and what you’ll get. However, if you’re going to stay at a Marriott, Four Seasons, or Hilton, you know what you’ll get because a reputable national brand has been doing this for a while. So, Poplin is the first and only national laundry service company. We’re the only brand in the laundry space that’s been providing this service nationwide for years. It’s the comfort of knowing you’re dealing with a real brand, not some mom-and-pop wash-dry-fold place on a street corner.

The second thing is Poplin is much more economical. The price will be better than the price you’ll pay using a local wash-dry-fold company because a local wash-dry-fold company has all the costs of brick and mortar. It’s the same reason that the taxi companies couldn’t compete with Uber. We’re a peer-to-peer marketplace. The peer-to-peer marketplace business model is so efficient that it enables us to offer the service at a price that businesses using another model can’t compete with.

The third thing (the most attractive to our customers) is that Poplin is a seamless, modern experience. In other words, if you want to get your laundry done by another company, it’s probably not app-driven. Maybe you’ve got to take your laundry there and drop it off, or you’ve got to call them and pick it up. If you have questions in the middle, you’ll need to call or message them.

Here, you just tap the Poplin app, take your laundry, put it outside your front door, back door, and designated spot, and that’s it. You’re done. Pickup and delivery are included. Any communication that’s required happens seamlessly through the app. It’s just this frictionless, seamless, incredibly convenient, quick, and easy experience. Whereas if you deal with a small local company, which is your only alternative, it won’t be so frictionless and seamless. You’ll feel like you’re dealing with a company that’s a couple of steps behind.

Customer Feedback and Service Evolution

SBS – Do you have examples of how customer feedback changed some things in the app and your service?

Mort – Oh, gosh. There are dozens. There are maybe hundreds of examples. One example would be that when we launched, we provided exclusive next-day service. Some customers asked for it, and we started offering same-day service. Now, of course, it’s a premium service. It costs more, but at least it’s an option for customers.

Another example would be when we started, we offered two different detergents, premium scented and hypoallergenic. Some customers are extremely specific about the exact detergent they want to use, so we created a third option where they could provide their detergent. You just put it in with your laundry, and laundry pros use your detergent.

Future Plans and Expansion

SBS – What are some plans for Poplin? Can you share some new services, features, or expansions in the pipeline?

Mort – There’s a lot that I can’t share, but I’ll share with you one that I can. On the product roadmap, we’re going to be releasing recurring orders. Let’s say you want your laundry done every Thursday morning. Instead of placing a new order every Thursday morning, you set it up as a recurring one. It’ll be out by the end of Q2 of 2024.

Entrepreneurial Advice and Insights

SBS – What advice would you give future entrepreneurs who want to start a business similar to yours?

Mort – That’s a pretty open-ended, pretty wide-open question. The first thing that comes to my mind is that to create something from nothing, start a new business, and think that you can do that and you’re going to be successful with it, you have to be a little nuts. It’s hard. You better be prepared to work like crazy and meet a ton of obstacles.

When we started this, everybody told us it would never work, and they’d say it was a stupid idea, and nobody would give their laundry to a stranger. Still, we had our support. We had a support system and family, and we had a vision. That vision and our passion for it continued to overcome all the naysayers. You need that. There’s going to be a lot of naysayers. 

Whatever an entrepreneur wants to do, if it were easy, it would have already been done. If it were an idea that made sense to others, it would already be done. So, if you’re doing something new, revelatory, or groundbreaking, people will think you’re crazy. Hopefully, they’re right. Because if you’re not crazy, you’ll never succeed.

Impact of COVID-19 on Business Operations

SBS – How has the COVID pandemic affected your business?

Mort – Some businesses thrived during COVID, and others were destroyed during COVID. Most of that termination is luck, and we were lucky on the good side. COVID helped us for a few reasons.

On the supply side, it helped because everybody was desperate for a work-from-home job, and Poplin is a very unusual work-from-home gig. It helped us on the demand side for a few reasons. Number one is people weren’t going into the office, so they were wearing less clothes that required dry cleaning and more clothes that required laundering, and the laundry burden was increased for your average family.

The second reason is very interesting. COVID was, of course, a terrible time for everybody. The fact that there was so much sickness and death all around us made your average person more introspective. More people were thinking about how they wanted to spend their time. When people really think about that, nobody answers that question: “I want to spend four hours a week doing laundry.” They answer they’d outsource their laundry to Poplin so they can spend their time how they want to spend it (with kids, boyfriends, husbands, doing hobbies, or whatever the case may be).

Generally speaking, people don’t want to be burdened by this chore. In that sense, Poplin helped us because people were looking for a better quality of life and a more meaningful life.

SBS – I’d like to add that you must be adaptable and open to whatever happens. You also need to believe in what you are doing. It is your business, so if you don’t believe in it, who will?


  1. Kay Grady says:

    I just contacted your company for a laundry pickup. The woman, didn’t get her name, who helped me had such a heavy accent it was difficult for me understand her.
    Perhaps some language training so it wouldn’t be so difficult for both your employee and me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mort Fertel on Building Poplin into a Laundry Leader