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.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.