How much water does it take to make a grimy car gleam? The answer might not be as much as you think, as thousands of Jordanians are now discovering. KeenWash, the first in the region to offer a mobile waterless car wash service, has grown exponentially since its founding in 2008, picking up the coveted Queen Rania National Entrepreneurship Award along the way. Dr. Nader Atmeh, KeenWash’s Managing Director, talked to Venture about his company’s successful leap into the unknown.
By Mohamed Madi
What is now KeenWash, is in some ways a continuation and in others a decided break with Dr. Nader Atmeh’s business past. With a degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Atmeh’s career up until 2005 had been in the chemical manufacturing business. Out of a factory in Abu Alandah, Atmeh produced cosmetics, household cleaners and industrial chemicals for local and regional markets. Even then, Atmeh believed in innovation and a tight control over quality.
“We formulated all the products ourselves, unlike others who simply buy the rights to well known brands and imitate” he said. However, the idea that propelled Atmeh and his sons on to CNN, BBC and later to win one of Jordan’s most prestigious entrepreneurship prizes, was yet to come. As usual, the idea was an answer to a problem, and that problem was water.
Not many Jordanians need reminding that their country is the fourth most water scarce country in the world, according to the World Bank. Its water deficit is expected to reach 434 million cubic meters by the year 2020. Atmeh realized anything that would significantly cut down on water use was sure to be a hit, and in car washing he saw an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. The statistics reveal the rationale; traditional car washing methods use from 180 to 570 liters, depending on the care taken to conserve water and the size of the car. A conventional car wash uses up to 200 liters of water. In addition, the by-products of traditional car washes include detergents, lead and enzymes which, if they reach the water supply, can seriously degrade water safety. Traditional car washing techniques were starting to appear environmentally and economically unviable.
Enter the waterless car wash solution, a formula which can clean an entire car in 15 minutes using just 150ml of a water-based solution. KeenWash was not the world’s first waterless car wash formula. That distinction goes to a US company, DriWash, which started making a similar product in 1991. Today, there are several manufacturers of such cleaners, mostly in the United States. However, there remained nothing like it in the Middle East, so in 2005 Atmeh and his sons set about developing their own version, an all-Jordanian product, from design to production.
The formula took three years to develop, requiring extensive testing, reformulation and retesting. It was a lengthy and delicate process – the cleaner had to be tough enough to remove accumulated dirt and grime but gentle enough not to damage paintwork and plastics. In 2008 the formula was finally ready.
Preparing the formula, however, was only the beginning. Creating the product was a relatively easy first step considering Atmeh’s expertise in chemical manufacture. “What happened next was where the real innovation started,” Atmeh said.
Unlike US manufacturers who simply produced the formula and then sold it in bulk, Atmeh and his sons came up with a business plan that involved a comprehensive, A-to-Z service to accompany the KeenWash product. Not only would they manufacture the cleaner, but they would make the cleaner come to you, a step no one had taken to that point.
“The shift from production to service was a large step and wasn’t one we took lightly.” Atmeh explained. “We brought on board personnel who had experience in the service sector, young people who had great ideas.” One of those ideas was the purchase of three KeenWash vehicles, which would travel to clean customers’ cars in their homes, offices or garages. Despite the early promise however, bookings were initially slow.
“Our biggest challenge was convincing people that a waterless car wash would be as effective and safe as a traditional wash. People equated washing with water. A lot of our energy was spent trying to overcome that skepticism,” said Atmeh. To prove to Jordanians the formula was safe and effective, Atmeh took the risky step of giving out 1,500 free car wash trials to high profile people. A concerted advertising effort, a fresh website and word of mouth recommendations combined to slowly convince Jordanians that the idea was not as crazy as it first seemed. Dedicated washing stations at hotspots such as Cozmo supermarket and City Mall also helped to raise KeenWash’s profile.
Now, two years later, KeenWash is high and dry, so much so that they are looking to expand into other markets in the Middle East through the sale of franchises. KeenWash’s model of highly visible, well branded, comprehensive service lends itself naturally to the franchise model; an opportunity Dr. Atmeh is keen to exploit. KeenWash has already sold franchise rights in Damman and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and also in Bahrain, Qatar and Lebanon, and is in negotiations to sell rights to KeenWash in Egypt. Atmeh says they have had interest from places as diverse as Brazil, China, Japan, Switzerland and Spain.
A major factor in KeenWash’s rapid rise was the first place prize it won in the Queen Rania National Entrepreneur- ship Competition (QRNEC) in 2008. Organized by the Queen Rania Centre for Entrepreneurship (QRCE), the prize seeks to reward mature entrepreneurs and inspire younger ones through the mutual sharing of knowledge, skills and expertise. One of the rewards was a specialized training program for new startups, which dealt with potential pit- falls such as designing viable business models and ensuring scalability.
“We felt really grateful for winning. Innovation in Jordan really needed something like QRCE, and such awards give me encouragement that there is at last something being done to promote entrepreneurship here,” Atmeh told Venture.
A major part of KeenWash’s success can be attributed to its strong brand image. The valets who clean customers’ cars at malls and supermarkets wear the luminous green KeenWash shirt and a company cap, while the mobile units double as highly visible moving advertisements. All 27 car care products that Atmeh makes in his factory now bear the KeenWash brand. KeenWash’s solution to a pressing environmental problem has contributed largely to their rise. In addition to saving water, the product, which is water-based and petroleum free, is also more environmentally friendly in that it doesn’t release harmful chemicals into the water supply.
Today, Atmeh’s son Mutaz is the Marketing Manager while his sibling Hassan takes care of production and IT in their modest Sweifieh office. KeenWash is still very much a family run business, but this doesn’t in any way mitigate the extent of their ambition.
“We want to be a global company, and we are always looking for solutions that will take us to the next level,” said Atmeh. One of his plans is to target businesses which operate large vehicle fleets, such as transportation firms and utility companies. Signing deals with clients such as these will save huge amounts of water. For example, a company with 300 cars washed once a week would save 3,336,000 liters of water in a single year. The possibilities are huge, and the environmental benefits tantalizing.
KeenWash’s eagerness to expand has also seen it join the Endeavor network, a not-for-profit organization based in New York which specializes in developing business ideas and taking them forward. Atmeh and KeenWash have already come a long way since the days of mass producing household cleaners and hair care products, mainly through the willingness to adapt, innovate and embrace new technology. It is with a twist of irony that today one of the extra services that the KeenWash brochure offers is a “carpet and fabric shampoo.”