Page last updated at 22:04 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 23:04 UK

Superman coming to a laundry near you

By Richard Anderson
Business reporter, BBC News

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's... Dave washing his underpants.

Superman ironing his underpants on the Fourth Plinth
David Lambert believes no one else is offering a service like LaundryRepublic

Washing underwear is not something most of us would ever consider fun, let alone the stuff of superheroes.

But, it seems, we've all been missing a trick. Dress up as Superman, stand on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and wash away in front of hundreds of bemused spectators and this most menial of tasks is instantly transformed.

This is precisely how David Lambert spent last Thursday morning, and "it was one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done," he says.

But there was a very good reason for Mr Lambert's seemingly bizarre behaviour. In May, he launched LaundryRepublic, a laundrette service designed to take all the hassle out of, well... going to the laundrette.

New direction

When he's not busy dressing up as Superman, Mr Lambert is getting used to a much less glamorous lifestyle.

This time last year, he was employed as a management consultant advising large retail groups on corporate strategy. Now he spends three to four hours a day driving a van around London collecting people's dirty clothes.

Mr Lambert enjoyed his consultancy work, "but at the end of the day it was just advising other people. I decided it would be more worthwhile to get out into the real economy and do it myself. Being an entrepreneur always sounded so much more fun and fulfilling," he explains.

Ian Walker of LaundryRepublic driving a van
Ex-management consultant Ian Walker enjoys life as an entrepreneur

Having always worked long hours and been frustrated by the Saturday morning dash to the laundrette, when he'd far rather be doing something else, and having stumbled across something similar in California, Mr Lambert and his consultancy colleague Ian Walker came up the the concept for LaundryRepublic.

The idea is simple - customers dump their laundry in a locker at work or in their block of flats, any time of the day or night, and someone collects the dirty clothes and brings them back clean.

No other company, they believe, is offering such a service.

'Fantastic deals'

Mr Lambert quit his job last autumn, despite the savage economic downturn. "It was slightly scary as it's hard to know what the future brings, and of course we asked ourselves, 'Is now the right time?'" he says.

But the recession actually helped to save start-up costs. "We got some fantastic deals from suppliers, so we saved lots of money on everything from rent and machinery to furniture and stationary."

And, luckily, financing wasn't an issue. "We met up with a major bank six months ago and it offered us a loan at 18% [interest]. This wasn't particularly appealing," he recalls.

They didn't need that much as the start-up costs were not high, so the two partners financed the business themselves.

They both share the driving responsibilities and outsource much of the laundry and dry cleaning.

And business is booming - it seems Mr Lambert is not alone in bemoaning the weekend laundrette dash. Customers simply send a text when they have deposited their laundry, and can choose between a next-day and a three-day service.

And prices are competitive, says Mr Lambert: "It's important to offer good value, particularly in the current environment."

A suit costs £10 to dry clean and a shirt costs £2 to launder.

A man leaving a suit in a LaundryRepublic locker
LaundryRepublic means you don't have to leave home to go to the laundrette

The company serves about 2,500 flats across 25 large blocks in London, with the number growing by 250 a week, he says.

Within two years, he hopes to expand outside London and, eventually, to branch out into Europe.

But, for now, there is little need for further financing.

"The nice thing about this business is we get paid quickly and there are no stock issues. Cashflow isn't too bad and overheads are easily scaled," Mr Lambert notes.

If bank interest rates come down, the company will look again for additional money to help expansion, he says.

'Pink pants'

Right now, however, the focus is on establishing the business and spreading the word. Hence the plinth.

Both business partners applied for a slot only last Tuesday, and Mr Lambert got a call from the organisers that afternoon saying he was on for Thursday morning at 0600. Mr Walker, "the more exhibitionist" of the two, was not amused.

"I had no idea what we were going to do, just that we had to come up with something very quickly," Mr Lambert recalls.

"On Wednesday morning, we came up with the Superman plan. We wanted to combine something fun and comic book with something really unglamorous, like washing.

I raced into town to buy 25 pairs of red Y-fronts, but they're much harder to find than you'd think. So I ended up buying white pants and dying them red.

I spent Wednesday night in my kitchen frantically dying all these Y-fronts, really concerned that Superman would have to make do with pink pants!"

Publicity stunt

He needn't have worried. The pants came out fine and he enjoyed a truly memorable experience.

David Lambert dressed at Superman on the Fourth Plinth
David Lambert's performance was viewed across the world

"It was slightly surreal wandering through London at 0430 dressed as Superman with absolutely no one even batting an eyelid, but I got a great response when I got up the plinth.

The two business partners decided they didn't want to turn what is meant to be a showcase for art into "an advertising opportunity", so they didn't hang any signs or hold up any banners for LaundryRepublic.

But it seems they managed to get wider publicity than they could possibly have imagined.

"We got e-mails from Romania, Hong Kong, Australia and Brazil, and one from Donald and Dorothy in West Virginia telling us how much they enjoyed watching me," says Mr Lambert.

Add to this coverage in the national press and what was, Mr Lambert says, conceived as a bit of fun, with little real commercial benefit, has turned into a rather successful publicity stunt.

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