Winner, winner

Houston 'RedBox of dry cleaning' startup wins the Rockets' Launchpad Contest and pockets a $10,000 prize

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Safir Ali and his brother, Mubeen, thought they had a better way to improve and modernize the dry cleaning user experience, and, lucky for them, the judges behind the 2019 LaunchPad Contest agreed.

The contest, sponsored by the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass, will reward Hamper with a $10,000 prize, along with a consultation with Rockets and BBVA Compass executives and a host of other prizes. But winning the startup competition, which seeks to recognize Houston-area entrepreneurs using technology to advance their businesses, has been icing on the cake for Hamper's successes.

The brothers grew up in their parents' dry cleaning store. After school and over summer vacations, the boys would work in the shop, which their father founded shortly after emigrating to the U.S. in 1989.

"I had this 'aha' moment in 2016," Safir says. "I had graduated from Texas A&M in 2014 and was working a corporate job and the last thing on my mind was joining the family business. But I started to see all the pain points for people in dry cleaning."

The biggest, he observed, was the inconvenience of it all. He'd notice people rushing to collect their shirts and suits in the after-work hours between 5 and 7 p.m., harried looks on their faces in the sprint to get there in time, relief that they'd made it before the doors closed at 7.

"'I'm so glad you're still open!' they'd tell us," he says. "And I thought, there really has to be a better way."

That better way, he and Mubeen are betting, is Hamper. Safir describes it as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered straight to their suite. Originally, Safir thought the kiosks could be stand-alones, but it proved to be easier to partner with high-traffic office spaces, like those in the busy Galleria or over in Williams Tower.

Hamper's concept is two-pronged, but simple. Before the company even built a drop-off kiosk, they created an app that would allow people to schedule when a driver could come and collect their dry cleaning. Using technology similar to the kinds of location software Uber uses, Hamper users could create an account, tick off what items they needed laundered or dry cleaned, then select both a pick up and a drop off time. A Hamper driver would come and collect the items, and then return with them fully pressed and cleaned.

The app launched in 2017, but it was never the end game.

"The kiosk prototype took us a year and a half to build out," says Safir, who enlisted the help of some friends who'd studied mechanical and electrical engineering to do it. Last summer, Hamper started a pilot program for the kiosks, setting them up in three Class-A office buildings.

"The idea is that the buildings and offices can offer dry cleaning as another amenity," says Safir.

For customers, using a Hamper kiosk is easy. The first time they visit the kiosk, they input their mobile phone number, then create an account with their name and office suite. They then scan the special Hamper bag they've picked up either from a promotional visit by Hamper or from the kiosk itself. Each bag has a unique QR code that becomes attached to the customer record. Once the bag is scanned, customers receive a text message to connect with Hamper and complete their order, listing the items they've put into the bag and inputting payment information. They then seal the bag and drop it into the kiosk. Hamper drivers collect all of the bags, and bring them to the Ali family's dry cleaning shop, where they are laundered. Once they're ready, the items are brought back to the offices. Customers keep the dry cleaning bags for their next order.

"We strive for excellence, both in terms of price and quality of service," says Safir, who's a member at Station Houston. "When the garments come in and when they go out, we have a seven-point inspection system. If a seam's come loose or a button has been broken somewhere along the way, we fix that."

Being able to combine the quality of a family business with 21st century technology has been exciting for Safir. The kiosk software was built in Angular, and is now hosted on React JS. Hamper's revamped website is about to make the transition to React JS, having formerly existed on Angular.

"The cool thing for us is that we're gearing up to build software for our dry cleaning facility – we call it the plant," says Safir. "We want to revamp the traditional experience where each garment is given an individual ticket and someone staples that onto the garment and pushes it through the system."

He envisions a system where a permanent barcode will be imprinted on a particular garment's care tag, so that whenever that garment comes back to Hamper, all the information about its cleaning will be there: does the customer like light starch, does it need some sort of additional care.

"If we can automate that intake process, we can be more efficient," says Safir. "At some point, I'd love to look at using AI to do things like spot stains or other damages before we wash the garments."

Safir knows he's disrupting the family business, and he readily admits that his father looked at him and his brother like they were crazy when they first broached the idea. But he came to appreciate the brothers' worth ethic, which Safir says they inherited from their mom and dad,and the idea that his sons were making a dream of his come true.

"For as long as I can remember, my dad talked about wanting a warehouse space in addition to a retail store," says Safir. "And thanks to the business we've brought in, we're working to make that a reality. We'll probably move in in September."

Once they do, Safir knows, two generations of dry cleaners will co-exist, using the tools of their centuries to continue their business.

In addition to the prize money from the Rockets Launchpad Contest, Hamper will also be recognized in a joint press release announcing the company's win, as well as getting some love at halftime at an upcoming Rockets game and having the win posted on social media.

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana are both parents and both busy professionals. And both used the same word when it came to finding camps to help their kids pass the long, steamy summer: painful.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

"We believe the most important aspect to building anything is to understand your users," says Tudor, who left his research and development job at a major oil and gas services company to work full-time on Camppedia. "Before we launched, we did a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of parents, and then hand sketched prototypes to better convey our idea."

The pair went one step further after that, speaking with camp providers, seeking input about not only their products, but also the issue they faced in terms of marketing or registration. Following that fact-finding mission, they built Camppedia to show as many options as possible for families who want to book activities, as well as giving users the option to build their own calendars, save favorite options and see what camps actually have spots available. When parents select a camp, they are then driven to the individual camp's website to book.

Development on Camppedia, which is a member company at Station Houston, began last September, when the duo began looking at what to include on the site and finding partners who could assist them in building it.

"We looked at a bunch of different paths from a technology perspective," says Ana, who works on the site from her home in Virginia. "Because you can build the sort of the fancy, what I'd call destination-technology architecture, or you could build something scrappier, and I think we landed on something scrappy because we are still learning. Chances are [going forward] we'll change quite a bit."

Camppedia is built on WordPress, and currently features more than 275 camps from large to small. Tudor and Ana have been making improvements ever since, but the response has been enthusiastic. Parents, the pair say, have loved having so much information in one place. And camps have actually come to them, seeking information about how to be listed. That led to the creation of a camp partnership category, where camps can pay to use certain features on Camppedia's site, such as the ability to reach out to interested parents.

Going forward, the duo look forward to further building Camppedia as a resource. They're looking at adding reviews and experiences from parents, as well as finding ways to take the concept nationwide. But they're really happy with how the site has grown and the response they've had. The business, they insist, is designed to be a service that will support parents as they try to make the best decisions they can for their children.

"While the road ahead is daunting," says Tudor. "We are super excited about the possibility of building something truly useful for working parents who nowadays are struggling with so many competing priorities and whose needs seem to be somewhat overlooked by the digital reinvention coming out of Silicon Valley."


Photos courtesy of Camppedia