Despite — or perhaps spurred by — the ongoing global pandemic, a number of outstanding innovations have swept the country in a frenzy of digital evolution. Among these is the entry of the Philippines’ first-ever smart locker system Qube, an out-of-the-box project that incorporates smart technology and IT solutions in a bid to provide improved logistical services to the Filipino people.
Behind this ambitious innovation is Elcid Lao, the CEO and founder of the LAUNDRAFÉ & Co. Group, which uniquely combines a laundromat and cafe into one entity. Inspired by a small and quirky cafe found on the streets of Shinjuku, Japan, Lao decided to bring the idea into the Philippines, establishing the cafe chain in October 2018. Since then, the company has expanded its offerings to include smart storage systems that will help its current laundry services and also provide opportunities for local SMSEs around the country.
As part of this year’s Modern Tao Ke Campaign, the MTK 8 List features the achievements of brilliant Chinoy personalities who embody the values of a modern tao ke (read: Hokkien for entrepreneur). In light of his recent business innovations, Elcid Lao talks to CHiNOY TV about his ambitions and plans for the Philippines’ technological future.
You established the LAUNDRAFÉ group, which is an interesting portmanteau of the words “laundry” and “cafe.” What inspired this business idea?
The idea was taken from the streets of Shinjuku in Japan. I stumbled upon this very cute, very vibrant laundry cafe shop. It’s actually quite small, but I thought of making something bigger and better. I bought the idea back here in the Philippines and started the first establishment last October 2018. So LAUNDRAFÉ: it’s actually from the words “laundry” and “cafe.” So it’s basically a combination of two entities.
What I thought about is [that feeling] when you go in somewhere like a Starbucks or a Coffee Project. The ambiance would be something far better, where people won’t think of doing their daily laundry chores as something that’s tough for them. But instead, having this kind of place would be a fun-filled moment for them; and then at the same time, while doing their laundry, they get to have high-speed internet, they get to watch Netflix, and they can do their work as well. Basically, they can do everything there. The space must be really big, and the ambiance must be really enticing. That’s what makes LAUNDRAFÉ different from the other small laundry cafes here in Manila. I can say that we are the only five-star laundry cafe shop here in the country.
Aside from the laundry cafes, you also introduced a new smart locker system to the country. As a pioneering company, how did you come up with the idea to launch your subsidiary LAUNDRAFÉBox and its Qube smart locker system?
I established a company that’s going to be focusing heavily on technology, so what I really want to do is to have something innovative that will be applied to all the businesses or subsidiaries that I currently have. That’s why we [combined] “LAUNDRAFÉ” and “Box” since a box is similar to a cube. Then Qube is actually the brand for the smart locker system and all the other smart innovative devices and equipment that can aid in providing innovations and services.
Initially, the plan was really to expand the LAUNDRAFÉ concept by reaching out to the market in terms of laundry service. That’s why I came up with the smart locker system because I’ve seen that already in different countries — in Japan, Dubai, and Thailand. I saw this as a super high-tech smart locker system that provides our core business, which is laundry, while expanding without the price of high capital. Because if we try to expand the LAUNDRAFÉ & Co. concept, which is originally the brainchild, it’s actually quite expensive, given that [the cost of] interiors and the rentals is quite high. So why not combine something for the future? It will be more beneficial and more convenient for our clients and our company, so I thought of expanding and providing a lot of services as well — not just laundry.
Your website shows that you are already introducing the smart locker system to various local airports. Has that already been implemented, or is it still in the process of being implemented?
It’s actually in the process already. By next month, we’ll be going to Cebu, Mactan [International Airport], Terminal 2, and have an ocular. Just yesterday, our team was in PITX [Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange], and we’re going to be putting up a lot of smart devices there. We’re not just limited to the smart locker industry, but we also want to provide a lot of innovations, such as smart vending machines and the PUDU concept — there are automated robots that will be there to serve and aid passengers when they travel across different countries.
We also tied up with other big names in the industry, like condominiums and Globe. What we do really want, and what I also envision is that we will be able to bring up and uplift the Filipino people in terms of technology because we’re already lagging behind our ASEAN neighbors. So with that mindset, I want to have this implemented right away, so that the Philippines can step into the limelight.
It looks like there are a lot of technological advancements you have in your plans. What do you imagine Qube and LAUNDRAFÉBox to be in the future?
Basically, Qube is a brand under the LaundrafeBox Corporation. Qube is the stepping stone of the future of digital services in the country. Everything is under the Qube branding. It will show innovation and convenience, technological advancements, and efficiency to both the client and the business owners. It actually has a bigger brother, which will be christened as PUDO (Pick Up and Drop Off). We’re going to be having a lot of PUDO hubs and stations, where everything is going to be automated.
Just think of a convenience store, where people won’t need to assist you. Instead, it will be more secure since you’re going to be using your phone to open the PUDO convenience store. Then you can process everything in there: from topping up your credits for your mobile phone, buying food, and even sending out parcels. So that’s going to be really a very promising technology in the future. Just to make it simpler, think of a facility where all these different kinds of Qube units — be it a smart locker, a smart vending machine, or a smart digital kiosk — everything will be placed in this certain facility.
Just to clarify, you’re going to have an app for it, or is there an existing app that’s all centered on the smart locker system?
It’s going to be christened as Pandora. Pandora will be the system that’s going to power up all these innovative devices. It’s going to be the heart, the mind, and the soul of these computers — these robots. It’s actually not just an app. It’s not a super app, but it’s actually an ecosystem. Everything is in there. If you want to send out a parcel, you don’t need to go to the nearest logistics partner, falling in line and wasting your time. You just go directly to your Qube locker or PUDO facility, and then everything will be done there.
When we place a smart locker, it will be capable of doing laundry, payment, and [sending] parcels in a certain location. The smart locker will be partnering with local laundry service providers, which must adhere to our standard protocols in terms of providing customer service and satisfaction.
Having these lockers in place in different locations would also give better opportunities for other businesses to expand their market and not just limit themselves to a certain location. It’s extending help. We’re not cannibalizing. We’re not monopolizing. Instead, we are trying to provide a lot of business opportunities. For those who want to have passive income, they can also own a smart locker unit or any smart devices and generate income from them.
The Modern Tao Ke campaign celebrates the modern values of a tao ke. What ability do you value the most, and why?
I’ll coin it as “optiverence.” It’s a combination of optimism and perseverance. Without these two basic abilities, I wouldn’t have been able to attain the vision that I wanted. I never lose hope, even though there are a lot of hindrances and challenges along the way. Even though I’m facing a lot of negativity or sometimes lose hope, I never think of that to be something that’s going to be pulling me down from my dreams. These challenges and issues are something that will surely mold me better to be the best of who I am right now.
What do the world’s current digital advancements mean to you as a modern tao ke?
Technology actually greatly empowers a modern tao ke. You cannot say you’re a modern tao ke if you are not able to adopt a technology. Usually, the traditional tao kes are quite close-minded about technology. They tend to have a fear of accepting it. But for me, I do believe that technology is something that can be a partner for today’s businesses, be it a small, medium, or big enterprise. Technology aims to provide you with the most efficient way of doing all the business processes. I do believe that a modern tao ke should have this embracement of technology.
Speaking of being open-minded and thinking outside of the box, would you consider Qube and LAUNDRAFÉBox to be out-of-the-box ideas? What does innovation mean to you and your business?
Actually, the tagline for the LaundrafeBox Co. is “Out-of-the-box innovations for life.” So yeah, I can say that everything that we are trying to introduce with the company is anything that pops up out of our minds that others think of as impossible. But for us, it’s going to be a reality.
We do have a lot of ideas that some people tend to [disagree with], saying, “Oh, that’s not applicable here in the country.” But of course, I always tend to look at what’s going to happen in the future. I don’t dwell on the past. I always think about what’s in the present and plan everything [based] on the present. I always envision what’s going to really be happening in the future.
You opened LAUNDRAFÉ in 2018, but the past two years have been marked by the global pandemic. What have these two years meant to you, and what have you learned from them as a Chinoy entrepreneur?
I really learned a lot during the pandemic. It really made me think of doing something that’s pandemic-proof. But I’m very thankful as well that before the pandemic, I was able to incorporate technology. We all know that during the pandemic, technology was on the rise. It paved the way for people to accept digital payments. For example, GCash [reached] its unicorn status because the pandemic really shaped the behavior of the Filipino people.
I have also learned that the pandemic is temporary. We cannot say it’s forever. That’s why it’s the same thing with innovation and technology. You keep on innovating. You keep on introducing something that’s going to be within the timeframe of your business, empowering everything.
What advice do you have for other fellow tao kes in your field?
Don’t ever give up. There are going to be a lot of problems. There are going to be a lot of failures. Make use of these failures as a pencil sharpener — as something that makes you better. At the same time, you must not always dwell on the past because failures are of the past. You must always think of what’s in the present, then think ahead for the future.