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Taking the water out of a car wash

May 27, 2015

A recent Penn State graduate grows a business while shrinking water waste

Taylor Mitcham knew her parents weren’t going to help take care of her new car. Everything was up to her — changing the oil and replacing the spark plugs — and she was especially concerned with keeping it clean.

But Mitcham had a problem. As a busy mining engineering major in Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, she didn’t have the time to spend at one of the local car washes. “I waited for half an hour for someone to be available to clean my car the first time I went to a car wash,” said Mitcham. “That just wasn’t going to work for my schedule. I really needed a service that would just come to my apartment when I was available, but I couldn’t find anything like that close to me.”

So if State College didn’t have what she needed, Mitcham decided she would create it herself. Her solution became Simple Car Wash, a waterless car-cleaning service that cleans vehicles right in a customer’s driveway.

More than a year after her initial idea, Mitcham has graduated from Penn State and established a full-blown business, complete with five employees. It seems like a simple idea -- customers schedule an appointment online and Mitcham’s “wash engineers” come to them -- but it took a lot of work, most of which Mitcham did solo during her last two years as a Penn State student.

Originally from Los Angeles, which is currently experiencing an unprecedented water shortage for the third year in a row, Mitcham’s priority was water conservation along with convenience. Figuring there were alternatives to a hose and bucket (which she didn’t even have at her apartment), Mitcham researched waterless car-cleaning solutions online.

“I went to 20 different manufacturers and ordered 20 different samples of this type of cleaning solution,” said Mitcham. “I used all of them on my car, and all but two started to freeze in the colder State College weather. So out of those two, I picked the one I liked the best and ordered a full bottle.”

Washing a car with the waterless solution is fairly easy. Wash engineers spray a biodegradable liquid onto the vehicle, which lifts the dirt off the surface, before they wipe it off with a cloth -- the solution doesn’t leave any scratches, there’s no need for rinsing or drying and it’s safe enough to drink. Mitcham found she could get her car clean in about 30 minutes with minimal elbow grease.

The word spread. Soon Mitcham’s friends were asking her to wash their cars, and then they started telling their friends. Eventually Mitcham’s bottle of solution was empty and she had a backlog of requests.

“I realized there was something there,” said Mitcham. “I just wasn’t quite sure what to do with the idea after that.”

Mitcham turned to Penn State for help. She visited the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which offers no-cost, confidential consulting services for those who are thinking of starting a business in Centre or Mifflin counties, and took a crash course on how to legally operate a business in Pennsylvania.

The SBDC directed Mitcham to additional campus resources, including a marketing class in the College of Communications that used her business as a project model to develop a marketing strategy within a certain budget. The students presented Mitcham with ideas about how she could promote her business.

But Mitcham has ideas of her own, too. She recently completely revamped the Simple Car Wash website and started using a barcode scanning app to keep track of customers.

“We can use barcodes already on the vehicle -- an inspection sticker or oil change reminder -- and scan them into our database using an existing app that I tweaked to better fit our needs,” said Mitcham. “We also have our own barcode stickers we can use if there isn’t one on the vehicle, but we like to use what’s already available.”

Mitcham’s in the process of developing an app that combines customer scheduling and barcode scanning, with some exciting additions.

“In addition to scheduling an appointment by calling, emailing or using the scheduling option on our website, we also want customers to be able to take a picture of the vehicle they want washed and then GeoTag it so we know exactly where they want us to go,” she said.

And Simple Car Wash certainly is on the move. Repeat customers are the core of Mitcham’s business, and now that subscription memberships are available, she hopes her customer base will continue to grow.

“Now you can pay a monthly fee and we’ll come out twice a month or even an unlimited number of times per month,” said Mitcham. “We’ve more than doubled our customer base in the last year, and we want to keep our existing customers.”

And that amount could grow exponentially in the near future. After just a year and a half into her business, Mitcham is in negotiations with a number of local car dealerships to contract Simple Car Wash to keep their cars attractive to potential buyers. These are conversations she never expected to be having.

“When this business started, I couldn’t even sell a ketchup packet,” said Mitcham. “Now I’m negotiating $100,000 contracts. It’s pretty surreal.”

That potential amount of waterless car washing also means Simple Car Wash is helping with water conservation efforts, something the California native is intimate with.

“When you traditionally wash your car -- where you have the hose and the bucket and you’re doing the washing in your driveway -- it can take up to 150 gallons of water,” she explained. “Even a car wash that has a top-of-the-line water reclamation system will use about 10 gallons of water, and that’s if your car’s not that dirty.”

Mitcham wanted to raise awareness about the amount of water that could be saved by using Simple Car Wash, while also giving back to the Centre County community. She created Operation 1 for 100, where for every 100 gallons of water saved by her waterless car washes, Mitcham will donate one dollar to a local charity.

“I created Operation one for 100 because I wanted to give back to the community, as both a business owner and a resident,” said Mitcham.

And Mitcham is hoping that State College will give back to her, too. Her short-term goal for Simple Car Wash is to build the local market to more than $250,000. Mitcham’s long-term goals are a bit loftier.

“After we build our State College market, I want to franchise specifically to other universities,” she said. “Penn State has been amazingly helpful with getting me started. I’m excited to expand Simple Car Wash and see what happens.”

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