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Vab Sethi had always wanted to be a small business owner and hadn’t taken the leap – but when he lost his job due to layoffs during the pandemic, the moment finally felt right. He spent the next year learning about entrepreneurship and looking for the right opportunity. When he found a well-run laundromat for sale, everything added up and he jumped right in. Within a year, he’d acquired his second location, Shining Star Coin Laundry; Vab plans to rebrand both his businesses under one name in 2023. We chatted with him about what he loves most about business ownership and how he envisions expanding his laundromats in the future.
Rogers Business: Tell us a little bit about your business.
Vab: It’s a full-service laundromat. I’m very new to being a business owner. During COVID-19, I lost my job after being there for 10 years. I’d been wanting to go and do something on my own for a long time, so I saw this as a good opportunity. How did I specifically get into a laundromat? It was honestly a fluke. I would say that a lot of entrepreneurs who want to start their own business have this issue where they think, “Okay, I want to do something on my own. But what?” I think a lot of people struggle with that for a long time. I did, too, but the laundromat came along and the numbers made sense. I decided to give it a shot. In early 2021, I bought the existing business and it did well right away, so I bought a second laundromat in the same year. The second one wasn’t running well when I bought it, but by that time, I felt I could take it on and turn it around.
Rogers Business: Where did the idea for your small business begin?
Vab: It began with just wanting to do something of my own, but it also turned out that the laundromat industry in general, or at least in Canada, is still an essential, but often overlooked business. Because of that, there isn’t the same amount of tech disruption that a lot of other industries have seen. Now that I’m in the laundromat business, I think, “Okay, well, what can we do? What can technology do for us now?” That’s where I’m at today.
Rogers Business: Is there someone or something that inspired you to go into business ownership?
Vab: Business ownership runs in my blood, so to speak. I was born into a family that ran three different businesses. As I got older, they got to the point where it was time for a change, so they wrapped that all up and moved across the world to Canada from New Delhi, India. They didn’t necessarily want to go back into the life of being business owners, so I’m carrying on the torch now.
It was the perfect storm. I really loved my job before I acquired my businesses and I made decent money doing it, but when COVID-19 came around, I’d already been thinking, “I’ll give my job two to three years, but then I have to take action and go towards what I really want to do.” It all ended up making sense.
Rogers Business: What made you choose your current location(s)?
Vab: The fact that our second location is in a big plaza with other big name tenants makes life easy for our customers, because if it’s in a big plaza, there’s always going to be a ton of parking. Also, nobody wants to sit there while their laundry is being done. Because the Food Basics is next door, they can quickly run over to grab their groceries. There’s also a Tim Hortons close by, so all of those things really help. That’s a lesson I learned from opening the first location and kept in mind for my second location. The first location is in a plaza too, but it’s hidden away towards the back. It still does well because there’s an opportunity for customers to get a bunch of things done in the same trip.
Rogers Business: What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a small business owner?
Vab: For me, personally, I think it would be more from a strategic point of view. I’m often an overthinker and I think the biggest lesson for me has been that sometimes you just have to take action and deal with it as it comes. I’ve learned to just act instead of thinking about it further. Instead of considering if it’s going to be the right move from every way, shape and angle, I’ve learned to say, “Let’s just do it.” That’s been my lesson – not waiting to have 100% of the information needed to make a decision and acting when you’re a little more than halfway there in terms of information.
Rogers Business: How did you or do you get the word out about your business?
Vab: I haven’t done too much of that just yet because I’m new to business ownership. I’ve learned that lesson about taking action more recently. I was in a phase where I was getting both locations to a place where I’d be proud to put my name on them, in terms of improvements and such. I’m at the end of that now. There are a lot of future plans, which include rebranding, so both my businesses are under the same name umbrella. So far, promotion has worked the best for us through word of mouth. We ask all our customers to leave a Google review and we’re rated very highly.
Rogers Business: What is your best-selling product or service?
Vab: Right now, it’s people coming in to use the machines. What I would like to be my best-selling service is people dropping off their laundry for us to process for them. We’ve gone from being a simple laundromat to a one-stop shop. We’ve got everything, including wash and fold, dry cleaning, rug cleaning and leather cleaning. We’ve also got a tailor on site a few days per week.
Rogers Business: What is your vision for the future of your business?
Vab: I think the next step is going to be to market our wash and fold service because I envision us doing that around the clock. I wouldn’t want to be open to the public 24 hours per day, but I would like to get to a point where there’s enough wash and fold clients that I’ve got three shifts processing their clothes. We’re also looking into how to integrate technology. We want to have software on the back end that will keep people updated with the process, tell them where their items are or even send a text message when it’s ready to go. We also want to enable them to pay remotely so they can come in and pick up without having to deal with anybody in the laundromat. Eventually, we’re also going to put up lockers where people can drop off and pick up their laundry without any human interaction.
Rogers: What advice would you give to someone else looking to get started?
Vab: My advice would be to not wait to have 100% of the information you need to make a decision. Part of entrepreneurship is just making a call and rolling with it and figuring it out later on. You can’t do that with everything, but you’ve got to be willing to take risks, bet on yourself and bet on the fact that you’ll make it happen somehow. I think there is some reward to bringing down your comfort level a little bit and just rolling with the punches for a little while. I listened to a lot of entrepreneurial podcasts and making decisions with less information was a common message among a lot of them.
Rogers: What is the greatest reward you’ve gotten from being a small business owner?
Vab: Not having a boss. By far, the biggest reward is being your own boss. That’s why I got into this in the first place. I can get my work done when I want to get it done. I don’t want to confuse that with “I am the boss,” because that’s not the same thing, and not as rewarding as not having a boss.
Rogers: If your business has a secret ingredient what would it be?
Vab: Fantastic customer service. This idea also came from a lot of those podcasts about entrepreneurs. One podcast that stuck out to me for a long time was from Tony Hsieh, who started Zappos. His whole business model is, “We’re a customer service company first, and a shoe seller second.” That’s the secret sauce for my business; all my employees are instructed to look after the customer first. Commercial machinery can sometimes malfunction and people may lose a little bit of money. My employees have been instructed to not argue about it if it’s under a certain amount of money. I tell them, “Don’t call me, just look after the customer.” We just want to be there to fix it. Our laundromats have the best customer service. Our Google reviews are proof of that.