In 2018, Chris Hilliard, a group of friends and a software developer launched Suds, an app that let people arrange for their dirty clothes to get picked up, brought to a cleaner and returned to them.

The Baton Rouge-based company won $8,000 in a business pitch competition for LSU students, picked up local media coverage and started to gain some steam.

Then COVID hit.

Because people weren’t going into work, they had time to do laundry and didn’t need dry cleaning done. People didn’t want their belongings handled by strangers because of the fear of catching a deadly virus. And even if households wanted an outside service to clean clothes, laundromats and dry cleaners weren’t considered essential businesses, so they were forced to close temporarily in an effort to control the spread of COVID. All the momentum picked up by Suds evaporated. Hilliard said the business was “days and weeks” away from closing.

But the state threw Suds a lifeline. The Louisiana Housing Corp. was providing emergency shelter in hotels to people who had fallen on hard times during the pandemic. The agency wanted to see if Suds could arrange to clean clothes twice a week for the 180 people receiving shelter.

“From that we realized that hey, the same service that we have been providing to consumers, we can provide to companies and businesses and organizations,” Hilliard said. “And so what came from that was our commercial services branch.”

Suds pivoted to arranging cleaning for businesses and organizations. Now, commercial clients make up about 40% of the company's revenue, and that side is growing quickly. The company handles cleaning uniforms and linens for clients such as LSU, Southern University, the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services, and Aramark. 

The company has more than 500 users in Baton Rouge and tripled its customer base in 2023.

The business got another shot in the arm this fall when it won a $75,000 prize through Black Ambition, a nonprofit launched by music star Pharrell Williams dedicated to supporting Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs.

Hilliard said that award will be used to help Suds grow even faster. The business has about 15 employees, and the plan is to use the prize money to grow staffing by no less than 200%, bringing in salespeople, drivers and operational workers. The company is looking to quadruple its revenue in 2024 by strategic marketing to potential customers.

"We're setting our projections and our goals much higher," Hilliard said.

In this week's Talking Business, Hilliard describes what makes Suds different from other laundry services, what's next for the company and the climate for Black-owned businesses in Baton Rouge.

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What does it mean to Suds winning the Black Ambition award, getting some national recognition and some help for your business?

I'm still soaking it all in. Just the notoriety, obviously that came with it. The credibility that it's given me, just to have Pharrell Williams invest in Suds, I think more people are seeing our potential. Aside from that, the relationships that I've been able to build, cultivate throughout the time and just the network that they've created. People see the check that I held, but they don't see everything that comes along with the program. We get on weekly calls with the prize winners and mentors. They've set up what they call a Louis Vuitton learning lab. So Louis Vuitton sponsors Black Ambition, and they created this four-day immersive lab that they'll be inviting us out. They'll be surprising us with the location.

There are other services that pick up people's laundry and fold it, and you've got businesses that handle linens for restaurants. What makes Suds special?

People look at us and they think we're like a laundry service company. In actuality, we're a tech company. We just so happen to provide laundry and dry cleaning services. So one thing that's pivotal about our company is our technology and just the access, the ability to scale because of our model. The way our model is based, if we want to scale and neighboring states, we can, just by finding a vendor and opening up our application to those ZIP codes, essentially. That's how it works. So technology, I would definitely say is a big difference. Working with local partners, local vendors. So we are providing 'em, again, with an untapped customer base. These people don't have to do any type of marketing. We bring customers to them that they hadn't had, and we're grateful for them.

Who is the typical residential customer for Suds?

There's the young and middle-aged professional. We found that for the most part, they're our dry cleaning customer. And then there's parents. They look for different services. So they may lean more towards washing and folding clothes, they may lean towards dry cleaning. Then there's college students. We found out that although college students are a customer, they're our indirect customer. It's the parents that are paying for it. Because of that, we're able to tailor our marketing strategies towards parents rather than just the college customer.

What is the climate for Black-owned businesses in Baton Rouge?

I can say that I think that there's more opportunity for Black businesses in the city, in the community to grow, for sure. And I think we’re a perfect example of that.

I've had a ton of support through Nexus Louisiana, through LSU Innovation Park, the Small Business Development Center on the Southern campus and the Southern University Law Clinic. So I will say from the standpoint of the barriers that normally hold African American businesses back, I've been able to leverage certain organizations that have helped me kind of bypass those barriers or strengthen my skillets and strengthen my business to just to grow and to thrive. Having people that sometimes believe in your dream more than you believe in your dream is super beneficial.

What's next for Suds?

We will be expanding by January. We'll be in Prairieville and Zachary. The expansion to Zachary is residential based, and the expansion to Prairieville is also residential based, but there's an underlying opportunity for a lot of commercial (business). We will be revitalizing the entire user-facing app as well as the website and the app used by drivers. 

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