By Harry A. Kimmel III, APR PRSA, DLI Communications Director
Frustration with her laundry provider lead Rechelle Balanzat to a “Eureka!” moment. While working on her previous entrepreneurial venture, a social media consultancy firm, she attempted to contact her laundry provider to get some garments. She was unable to get through and wondered why, in a world where we can order virtually everything else any time, why can’t we get our laundry?
This question inspired her to investigate how to improve the garment care experience for other people. The answer led her to found JULIETTE, a six-location laundry and drycleaning business operating on-demand pickup and delivery services in New York City. Balanzat said she started JULIETTE with the intention of simplifying the process of getting items to and from a professional cleaner. To this end she invited a software engineer from a company she worked with previously to write the code for an app on the condition that he would be paid one year after launch. He agreed and the code became the backbone of her service today.
“I work in laundry and drycleaning but my core competency is technology,” Balanzat said. “When I came into the industry it was from the perspective and approach of, ‘how do we leverage technology and bring it to laundry and drycleaning?’ ”
Keeping up with innovation is both a challenge and passion for Balanzat. “Since I started in 2014, leading up to 2023, technology is constantly changing,” she said. “Each time there’s an innovation, I apply that innovation to my company. A lot of people also don’t know that I developed the technology behind it.”
JULIETTE is Balanzat’s third business venture. Her first was a social media agency and the second venture was for another tech company. “I was charged with building communities online around the time social media really started coming onto the scene and a lot of people didn’t know how to leverage social media, how to integrate digital media and social media with their marketing, PR, and communications initiatives,” she said. “So, this tech company brought me on to build out their social media community which I did. I sort of helped cofound that company. I’m still a shareholder and investor so I was a part of that founding team.” That company was named ROMIO.
To get her JULIETTE venture off the ground, she first needed to build her own laundry and drycleaning business from the ground up – no small feat by any measure.
While the app was being written, Balanzat decided to take a crash course in operating a laundry business. To learn the ropes she contacted several professional cleaners in her home city of New York, New York, and asked if she could work for them – for free. After being told no a few times, she connected with a Mr. Kim and began her unpaid internship at a laundry in New York. “Mr. Kim really taught me the laundry process,” she said. “That was a straight up laundromat. Washers, dryers, and of course we took in drycleaning but we were not doing the drycleaning on site. When I was working with Mr. Kim, I was learning laundry but also just learning the business, you know, how to run a laundry business.” She said she took meticulous notes and performed every job from sweeping floors to running machines and taking orders.
In fall 2019 Balanzat graduated DLI’s Introduction to Drycleaning Course. “When I went to DLI with Brian Johnson DLI was much more technical,” she said. “DLI was like, ‘here are the different pH balances, here are your tannins and here are the different combinations of fabrics and stains and how you treat them.’ I’m very grateful and thankful to DLI for teaching me the technical component of drycleaning.”
About what stayed with her from the course after four years, she said, “A lot of it ultimately comes down to communicating the process and what drycleaning actually is, not to my team but to customers. My team knows what drycleaning is. It’s when a customer comes in and says, ‘What is drycleaning?’ or ‘Why can’t you remove this stain?’ or ‘What’s the difference between wash and press and drycleaning?’ that’s where I use what I learned at DLI on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “When it comes to training my team, if we have a new hire or if this person has no prior experience in laundry and drycleaning, then I’ll sort of give them the DLI spiel and share with them what I’ve learned. My class and my time at DLI has been instrumental in that component.”
Laundry and Drycleaning On-Demand
The core of the problem Balanzat wanted to solve involved simplifying the customer experience to make it as easy as possible to use. She achieved this but it initially required a lot of manual labor, she said. Customer contact and tracking orders took time. She put AI to work in her app to help resolve this issue. “In 2020-2021 I wrote a program that allows people to request a pickup and bypass me, bypass admin, bypass my team, and just go straight into logistics,” she said. “It was leveraging AI but also text messaging. It’s so small and so simple but these little tweaks are what give us the edge. I make it a point to understand and be aware of the new trends in technology. I’m constantly thinking of ways to apply those trends to my business. In that mindset, JULIETTE is the future of laundry and drycleaning because as long as technology is evolving and as long as we continue to apply those trends to what we do, we will be the future of laundry and drycleaning.”
Hiring for Values
When it comes to hiring new candidates, Balanzat said she looks for specific qualities in potential candidates. “There’s a great quote that I go by that says, ‘Skills can be taught but values cannot.’ I can teach anyone a skill,” she said. “I can teach you how to do laundry. I can teach you anything if you want to learn but the value of wanting to learn – that’s on the person. The value of showing up to work on time, the value of applying what they’ve learned, the value of discipline and work ethic, those things I cannot teach to a person. They must have those values inherently. So, when I conduct my interviews, I’m not questioning them so much on ‘Do you know how to bag?’, ‘Do you know how to sort?’ I don’t do that. I’m more like, ‘What type of person are you?’, ‘What are your interests?’, ‘This is hard work, you’re going to be standing seven hours straight folding clothes, is that something you want to do? Tell me now!’ I’m very honest with them just to manage the expectations of the workload. That’s how I go about putting the proper team in place.”
Fashion informs Balanzat’s approach on social media. JULIETTE’s posts are striking in bold contrast and offer a bit of zing to the laundry and drycleaning business. “I worked for Donna Karan. So, I worked in fashion. I was one of her salesgirls at her store but I learned a lot during my time there,” she said. “It’s about how people want to be perceived. They would come in and say, ‘I have this show or I have this event, this meeting,’ and there was always something special going on in their life and then they would ask us to dress them,” she said.
“I bring a lot of that marketing and branding to what I do in laundry and drycleaning because at the end of the day your clothes that you are sending to the drycleaner, you associate those clothes with some part of your life,” Balanzat said. “We all go to work and we all have to look a certain way and that’s maybe 80% of the business but then 20% is something else, there’s something going on in your life and I love that part of the business. I love being a part of that story for my clients and looking at their fashion and understanding what events they’re going to,” she said.
Balanzat graduated with honors from Fordham University as a Philosophy major. Philosophy informs her work in several ways. “I gave a talk at the New York Public Library and I talked about hubris and humility,” she said. “What is hubris and what does that have to do with running a business? I talked about how only 25% of all businesses make it to the 10 year mark. To just survive in business you have to have a little bit of hubris, you have to have a little bit of confidence. You have to have something that is going to motivate you to show up to work everyday and fight the wars of business but you also have to have humility.”
“After we’re done talking, I’m going to go treat some clothes or go do a pickup, you know and a lot of those parts of the business require humility. How philosophy fits into my approach into running a business is understanding these core concepts and distilling what makes it worthwhile,” she said. “What is the point of doing this? If it’s just to pay the bills, I should just go get a job. Everyday I have to ask myself and remind myself, why am I doing this? What is the end goal? What is the purpose of this? That is where my background and training in philosophy comes into play. I can answer those tough questions and when I know the answers to those tough questions I can fight the daily battles of running a business.”
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is a major source of inspiration for Balanzat. She referenced Walter Isaacson’s biography on the Apple co-founder. “I used to write quotes from the book and put them on my mirror and I looked at it everyday,” she said. “Here’s one of my favorites: ‘Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things.’ That really affected me before I even started JULIETTE when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.
“Steve Jobs’ eye for design continues to influence me. He had this philosophy, that Coco Chanel shared: ‘Simplicity is the ultimate form of elegance.’ When I design things for my business I try to make it as simple as possible not only so it’s visually arresting or visually pleasing but because to distill something to its core value is an art,” Balanzat said.
Balanzat also owns and operates Chinese Laundry, a business focused on preserving the history of one of the United States’ historical institutions. “There used to be hundreds of Chinese laundries in New York,” she said. “Today there are only five left.” Her business, named simply, Chinese Laundry, is just a few buildings away from her main JULIETTE location. It is branded completely differently and the two do not appear to be connected. “The distinction in Chinese Laundry is the packaging,” Balanzat said. “The clothes are cleaned and folded in a special way, then they’re wrapped in paper and tied with string.” Such deluxe packaging harkens back to a time when such laundries offered some of the only jobs newcomers to the United States could get.
In addition to owning and operating JULIETTE and Chinese Laundry, Balanzat serves on the North East Fabricare Association’s Board of Directors. She has presented on several topics for DLI, the MidWest Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, and other associations. She has been featured in several non-industry magazines and is happy to share her vision of a better future for the drycleaning industry.