Product Samples that Save Money (and the Earth)
Georgia startup Tricycle makes recycled-paper carpet samples that look just like the real thing, and save the planet too.
By Maggie Overfelt, FSB writer-reporter

(FSB Magazine) -- In a time of global warming and PCB-filled streams, fabric carpet samples might not seem like a pressing environmental issue, but consider the numbers. An average order of 30 carpet samples, each 18 inches on a side, uses more than seven gallons of oil to create 45 pounds of carpet, most of which architects and interior designers throw away after a single use. Cost: $500 to $1,200, which the big carpet mills pay; samples take up about 8 percent of their revenue.

Outside Dalton, Ga., where giant mills manufacture about 80 percent of the U.S. carpet supply, a 32-person startup is out to replace fabric samples with versions made of recycled paper. Tricycle (tricycleinc.com), based in Chattanooga, sells high-end optical technology that creates paper samples so life-like that designers have a hard time distinguishing them from fabric versions.

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These new versions save 45 pounds of carpet and seven gallons of oil on an average order.

"The carpet industry has been the antithesis of environmentally friendly for the past ten years," says Bo Barber, founder of carpet maker Nood Floorcovering, a Tricycle client based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "Tricycle's influencing everybody - not only is it alleviating the time and money associated with custom-made carpet, but it's alleviating the environmental impact."

Tricycle's software generates computer printouts that replicate the colors and texture of carpeting using computer-animated design and sophisticated models of a mill's tufting machines.

To use the technology, manufacturers create a database by entering hundreds of variables - colors, types of fiber, different treads and pile heights - into a software program. Tricycle charges $250,000 to $1 million to set up the database. When a client wants to see what a particular carpet looks like, the mill can create and order samples online and send him stacks of precisely colored paper.

Jonathan Bragdon and Michael Hendrix, ex-Web developers, founded Tricycle in 2002 after landing a job with a carpet maker a year earlier. "We saw an opportunity to make a big impact," says Hendrix, 34. He estimates that Tricycle's technology saves manufacturers 70 percent of the costs associated with samples, about $5 million a year.

In 2005 manufacturers shipped about 34,000 paper samples, saving 8,611 gallons of oil and 51,665 pounds of carpet from being sent to landfills. That's a small footprint - samples take up less than 10 percent of U.S. landfills - but Tricycle has bigger plans. The company, with revenues of nearly $10 million last year, plans to expand into other design markets, replicating textiles, wallpaper, and wood. Says Bragdon, 37: "Our future is being able to show every available surface."

Does your small business have an environmental impact on your industry? Do you think businesses can profit more from producing green products in today's environmentally-conscious landscape?Tell us about it.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.