Damaris Ott has a Greek name but she’s born and raised in Romania. Her German-born husband Alexander Ott is “the intruder”, as she calls him laughing. Together they run Fourwood Laundry, a cozy launderette in downtown Bucharest, and plan business expansion.
Alexander and Damaris are in their 20s, wearing denim, cool baseball caps, and sneakers. She is petite, with elegant bone structure, and four-month pregnant. Alexander is very tall, and looks like he just had a concert with his indie band last evening. But despite the youngish look, which is even more obvious when you meet them face to face, they are down-to-earth entrepreneurs.
The two are running the only street laundromat in Bucharest, right next to Piata Unirii, and are now planning to open a second one, which will also serve organic coffee.
The business idea
Their favorite thing about each other is that they never discount the ideas they come up with. If Alexander, for example, has a business idea, which one could easily classify as crazy, improbable, not happening, Damaris would listen to it, and then say: Ok, it’s not easy to do it, but let’s think about it. It works the other way around, too. Sometimes she has an idea, which they will debate. This is how Fourwood Laundry was born.
Alexander moved to Romania five years ago and is studying to become a dentist surgeon. He had graduated from a business faculty in Frankfurt, and started working in the banking sector, but then realized that it wasn’t the life he wanted to live. He flipped the script, and enrolled at the Faculty of Dentistry in Bucharest. Damaris graduated from law and economics school, and is now working as a jurist. They wanted to start a business, which would bring some extra money and wouldn’t take up all their time. It was important for them to have something practical, with effective results. Going to a cafe or a restaurant, for example, is a whim, not a necessity. Damaris thought about opening a laundromat, and Alexander was in immediately.
“For a startup, it’s good to begin with something small, and then you see how it works,” says Damaris.
However, having a good idea is not everything, Alexander jumps in. Everybody has ideas. 60% of the whole process is actually applying the idea to see if it works or not, testing it. Alexander started doing the research; are there other laundromats in Bucharest, where are they located, where can they acquire the equipment? He then went to Germany and talked to a big equipment producer.
“It’s not a huge know-how, but there is a certain know-how,” he says.
“Although it seems like a cool idea, two young people opening a business, Alex did a business plan (…) we did a feasibility study to see what the market is, what the requirements are” adds Damaris.
Finding a good location was the most difficult part. People were advising them against looking for a location in the center of the city.
Bucharest already has some laundromats but they are located in the areas where students live, such as Grozavesti or Regie. Damaris and Alexander were actually betting on opening a street laundromat in a very central, easily accessible location.
After a several-month search, the two found a small place in Piata Unirii, which they immediately liked. It was literally full of garbage, but it had the exact size they wished and it was the perfect location: central and you can easily find a parking place.
They cleaned the place up, installed the five washing machines and three dryers, and then decorated the place with plants and drawings. Damaris has always been passionate about interior design. Fourwood Laundry has the friendly look of a cafe. It doesn’t smell like coffee, but like detergent and fabric softener.
The concept of laundromat involves a public space where you can wash and dry your clothes by yourself. However, Damaris and Alexander decided to hire a person because they think that this concept can’t work in that form in Romania for now. Without an employee, the washing machines would probably be damaged in a few months.
People drop off their clothes, and they can pick them up clean and dry in a hour and a half. The price is about EUR 6, or even less if you bring the clothes in the morning.
Is it a wash?
In the first months after opening, nobody would show up. Damaris and Alexander rationally knew that they had to wait, because it takes some time until people find out about new projects. But anxiety was kicking in. Was it a wash? Was it a wasted effort? They were often asked if they were selling washing machines. The young entrepreneurs said that they prayed a lot. They felt like the project was a blessing for them. “We had to keep believing, we prayed,” says Damaris.
And then, right when they thought about closing the business and selling it, something miraculous happened. Things started rolling. It was the beginning of spring, 2016. Tourists, expats, students would come in, more and more every day. They even had to hire a second person.
The two began to promote their project online. You can’t just post a picture with a washing machine, says Damaris. “You have to convey a mood. This is a clean, minimalist concept, based on art,” she adds. On their Instagram account, for example, they posted pictures of art pieces they discovered, of cafes from the cafes they visited.
“It’s not only a place where you wash your clothes,” says Alexander. “It’s about lifestyle. You don’t want to wash your clothes and hang them in your living room and wait for three days until they dry.”
Both of them are coffee lovers, and plan to add the coffee ingredient to their next laundromat. Damaris and Alexander want to open it in a larger space, and to also sell organic coffee.
The uncertainty of opening the second laundromat is smaller this time, because they already have some experience. But it’s still an adventure.
“If you stay in your little square, there’s no risk. But if you want to do more, you do have to take a risk,” Damaris says.
By Diana Mesesan, features writer, firstname.lastname@example.org