Entrepreneur plans to revolutionize car-wash industry

Veteran-turned-MBA student takes creative approach to attract investors, turn dream into reality

April 3, 2017

University of Colorado Denver MBA student Derek Safko noticed that simply saying “car wash business” is like tossing a wet blanket over potential investors. They often zone out before he can reveal the breadth of his plan to revolutionize the industry.

So, Safko took the extreme step of conducting a moonshot – quite literally. After weeks of watching weather patterns, he launched a copy of his business plan to the edge of space.

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Video of stratospheric mission

Derek Safko used a GoPro camera to videotape the journey of his HydroWave Express business plan to about 115,000 feet above the Earth.


In late March, Safko attached his HydroWave Express document to a weather balloon that rose from a field in Golden and reached about 115,000 feet before parachuting back to earth, landing near Ramah on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. A GoPro camera recorded the $1,000-plus mission, showing the business plan floating against a deep-blue sky, high above the curvature of the Earth. Safko, collaborating with a CU Denver student who runs a video production company, narrated a segment in which he explains his plans to shake up the car-wash industry.

‘Strange and eye-catching’

“The premise is that the video is so unusual, strange and eye-catching that it will get the attention of investors,” said Safko, who was CU Denver’s representative for the recent University Startup Challenge at the Angel Capital Summit in Denver. He hopes the video goes viral and pops into the email and social-media feeds of venture capitalists and other investors. “I’m hoping some of them will think, ‘Wow, this guy was willing to go this far to get my attention?’”

HydroWave business plan in space
CU Denver MBA student Derek Safko launched his car-wash business plan to the edge of space in a bid to attract investor interest.

In 2015, Safko, who is an Army Veteran and holder of a master’s in management from CU Denver, won $5,000 and finished runner-up in the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition hosted by the CU Denver Business School. He pitched the car wash plan back then, with its main hooks being speed-of-service and environmental friendliness. Safko has since jazzed up the plan to emphasize a theme-park quality – a car-wash trip geared to stimulate the senses and stir the imagination – along with quick-service and water-thrift qualities.

Derek Safko of the CU Denver Business School
Derek Safko placed runner-up and won $5,000 in the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition in 2015.

“While HydroWave Express will always focus on providing the highest-quality car wash, our primary goal is to enhance the consumer perception of the industry, which many see as dull and outdated,” Safko said.

Safko first envisioned a better and more fun way to wash cars when he went on the Test Track ride at Epcot at Walt Disney World. On the Test Track, riders are seated in life-size slot cars and experience the automotive testing process – hugging curves, navigating bumps, enduring cold and heat chambers – from behind the wheel.

Sensory experience at the car wash

Similarly, in HydroWave Express, the customer will remain seated as the vehicle moves through washing, buffing and drying phases. The final three phases will be futuristic experiences in which the vehicle passes through sleek and light-dazzling tunnels – awash in blue for rinse, orange for heat and dry, and glossy-white for polish – that fine-finish the car while wowing consumers (and their children).

The express wash will take three minutes and, at different stations, consumers will be able to choose various tiers-of-service packages. The lights, music, and overall experience will intensify with upgraded packages. “The vibrant waxes and sensory-stimulating upgrades will not only boost customer satisfaction by increasing the perceived value of their purchase, but it will also drive revenue for the business by enticing customers to purchase our top packages while increasing customer frequency,” the entrepreneur said.

Safko’s passion for the industry stems from his first job working at a car wash when he was 16. “While the word ‘experience’ is thrown around in many industries,” he said, “the car wash industry has failed to truly capture a unique experience for the consumer. It is this untouched opportunity that makes this business so appealing.”

‘Denver is a hub of entrepreneurship’

Safko, a native of Florida, spent 5-and-a-half years in the Special Forces, twice being deployed to Afghanistan and being named Special Forces Command’s Soldier of the Year, in addition to earning a Bronze Star Medal. Going into the military made sense for Safko because he had just earned a bachelor’s in economics at Florida State University when the Great Recession began in 2008. “It was (the military) or be forced to live with my mom while working as a barista to pay off my student loans,” he said. “I wasn’t going to settle for that – I wanted to keep my momentum going.”

Safko, who will finish his MBA this spring, expressly chose CU Denver for his graduate studies. “I wanted to attend a business school with a great entrepreneurship program that’s in the center of a city,” he said. “It’s no secret that Denver is a hub of entrepreneurship.”

Safko has thrived in the CU Denver Business School, enjoying its many networking opportunities as well as joining The Climb Consulting Group in the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship. The club helps small businesses solve management, marketing and research problems. “We have the ability to make sizable impacts with those organizations,” he said.

And now Safko is hoping to make a big impact on the car wash industry. If all goes according to plan, an actual brick-and-mortar-and-futuristic-lights HydroWave Express will, just like his business plan, take off.