Chris Hilliard was destined to be an entrepreneur. He opened his first business as a teenager and hasn’t looked back.
“When I was 15, I started cutting hair out of my grandparents’ house for $7 a head. That’s where it kicked off,” he says. “That entrepreneurship spirit had always been in me.”
Now, as co-founder, owner and chief operating officer at Suds Laundry Services, Hilliard is stepping up his commitment to entrepreneurship.
Find out what Hilliard is doing for the community, how he’s translated his charisma into a company culture and how he’s used local resources to achieve his goals.
Serving the Community, One Laundry Load at a Time
Hilliard’s vision for Suds has always been to free up customers by taking care of laundry, a time-consuming necessity. “The customer gets the convenience, they get the service, and more importantly, they get their time back,” Hilliard says.
Suds contracts with local laundromats in the Baton Rouge area to clean and sanitize clothing. Suds provides the app and infrastructure on the back end, picks up and delivers items to the partners for service and then back to the customer.
Like many other small businesses, Suds had to pivot during the pandemic. “When the pandemic hit, we were on the rise. We had this momentum, we had this confidence,” Hilliard says. But the shutdown slowed that momentum, he says: “Initially, they didn’t consider laundromats an essential business.”
During that time, Hilliard had to reflect and decide where to go next — and how dedicated he was to the business.
Hilliard decided to remain with Suds, and that commitment paid off. He soon got a call from the state about a government contract cleaning clothing for people without housing who were being moved into hotels during the height of the pandemic. There were 180 residents who needed their clothes cleaned twice a week.
Hilliard called his partners to ask if they’d be willing to take on the contract. Initially, they said no, but Hilliard’s persistence and persuasion won them over.
For Hilliard, Suds is much more than laundry. He’s committed to serving the Baton Rouge community in any way possible.
“We partnered with an elementary school in Baton Rouge to provide service for 25 students and their families,” Hilliard says. “The initiative behind that was to prevent bullying” by providing clean clothes so these kids would always be presentable.
Scaling Charisma and Culture
Hilliard developed his charisma from the early days of cutting hair as a teen. (Beauticians and barbers are like underpaid therapists, he says.)
In college, Hilliard majored in mass communications, and he has always been a self-described social butterfly. Going into HR had a huge impact on channeling his charisma, too.
“I was able to learn how to maximize that efficiency, how to motivate a team,” Hilliard says. “You don’t want them working for you: You want them working with you.”
Hilliard brings that charming personality to his relationships with vendors, who are vital to Suds’ business model. But laundromat owners often have a different background and perspective, which requires Hilliard to form a stronger foundation of trust.
“I want them to know that they’re valued,” he says. “That’s huge to me.” Hilliard regularly brings his vendors snacks, coffee and other items to show his appreciation.
Hilliard wants to scale his charisma to the point where he can focus on higher-level work while his team manages relationship-building with local vendors. “As of now, it is just me building these relationships,” he says. “We’re in the process of developing a workforce, a salesforce that will go out and create these relationships themselves.”
For this work, Hilliard is keen to find like-minded people who understand how to treat people well.
Making the Most of Local Resources
Hilliard wouldn’t be where he is now — a successful business owner, author and serial entrepreneur — if it weren’t for the help he’s received along the way.
Hilliard enrolled in law school but left, transferring to Southern University’s MBA program. At the time, he felt raw and unpolished, but a professor saw potential in him. This professor asked to meet with Hilliard for an hour before every class, polishing him and teaching him how to be his authentic self. Hilliard credits that professor with helping him move from the MBA program to a working for a Fortune 500 company.
Hilliard is soaking up all the local startup ecosystem’s resources. “I have tried to utilize every resource that’s been made available to me,” Hilliard says.
He’s accessed resources through the Southern University law clinic, the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce, the LSU Innovation Park and, of course, Nexus Louisiana and the Tech Park. Suds has been a Tech Park member for a few months, and Hilliard has already reaped countless benefits.
“It’s been awesome,” he says. “It provides physical space, this ambiance, this culture that’s within these walls.” NexusLA team members have made introductions for Hilliard, among other assistance.
The Tech Park isn’t the only NexusLA program Hilliard participates in. “I’m in the Ignition program,” he says. “That’s been a huge help.”
This season, the Ignition program is talking about customer discovery, pivoting and business models. “Nexus has been critical,” Hilliard says. “I plan to continue to work with them for as long as they keep me.”
You can make the most of what’s available to you, Hilliard says, if you’re willing to put the work in to make it worthwhile.