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When trying to break into an established industry, common wisdom
dictates that a startup begin on the fringes, far from what is held
most dear. However, sustainable design company Tricycle went
straight for the heart of the $12 billion carpet and rug market—its
sales cycle—and converted the industry in just three years.
You read correctly, carpet and rugs is a $12 billion industry.
Consider the carpet in your home, office, car, favorite airline,
restaurant, and resort hotel. Then consider Dalton, Georgia, where
half of the world's carpet is produced: a southern town that some
might call "old school," population 28,000, with two shopping malls
and a golf course that has seen high-dollar deals on every
Make no mistake, however—old school does not mean backward. We are
talking about the fashion industry. Scratch any surface and you
will find as much competition, design savior-faire and trendcasting
as in any Paris showroom. Skeptical? Biomimicry is the word du jour
in carpet patterns. Mod Mood Rugs were bought today for dormitory
floors all across the country. Design trends are a way to mark
time: another year goes by and last year's looks are out. The world
Enter Tricycle, an upstart startup claiming that the sales cycle of
the carpet industry is rife with unnecessarily wasted time and
money, as well as unnecessary waste that clogs America's landfills.
Tricycle's four founders have each worked in or around carpet
manufacturers for more than ten years: a carpet designer who rose
to entrepreneurial management, an engineer with a marketing MBA who
started at a tufting machine manufacturer, a graphic designer who
worked on carpet accounts, and the first Brit ever to put carpet
software on the Windows platform. Bringing four insider views on
the unspoken frustrations of manufacturers.
Their common ground was the realization that the carpet industry's
sales were manufacturing-driven rather than sales-driven,
especially in the corporate sector. For years the mills had
operated on an "If we tuft it, customers will buy it" model, rather
than meeting architects and interior designers where they live and
work. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the practice of sending
product samples to potential customers, to attract business. An
estimated 700,000 carpet samples are shipped every year
industry-wide, at a cost to manufacturers that typically exceeds
$150 per sample. Backlogs of requests mean that the potential
customers wait three days to three weeks. What is worse, by their
nature carpet samples are single-use products; most find their way
to the dumpster at the end of a project, adding up to more than a
million pounds landfilled annually.
Tricycle's founders saw other industries taking advantage of
today's new industrial (r)evolution, enabled by digital tools.
Music has become data. Images are recorded and transferred as data.
Cars are built, driven and even test-crashed before a single rivet
is popped. So Tricycle created SIM, the digital modeling of carpet.
SIM from TricycleT manufactures carpet in virtual reality, creating
samples that are viewable online at the click of a button or to
order realistic paper prints that are color-accurate (a must in
fashion markets). Since architects and designers frequently request
twenty or more samples for major projects, Tricycle's simulation
can be used for the early rounds of color and pattern choices,
reducing the number of physical samples shipped. The print samples
are delivered within 24 hours of request, and require zero oil, 95
percent less water and energy to produce than a physical sample.
Recycling is as easy as walking to a paper shredder.
Simple as the concept may be, breaking into the established
sampling process proved to be about as easy as crashing a tee time
at the Dalton Golf & Country Club. A long history of failed
promises from digital photography and "texture mapped" color prints
had taught the carpet mills to doubt that paper prints could be
color accurate and realistically show texture.
So Tricycle decided to enlist the voice of the buyer. Using their
own design sensibility and experience, Tricycle's founders began a
three-year campaign of surveys, awards competitions, informal and
formal partnerships, and press tours to connect with architects and
interior designers. They sold stock in their nascent company to
attend NeoCon 2002, the world's largest interiors trade show, where
they set up a booth with nothing to sell to attendees. Instead,
they were out to educate the market about SIM. That first year,
Tricycle won a NeoCon Gold Award, the equivalent of an Oscar in the
The company has won another NeoCon award every year since.
Tricycle's design work has also consistently been featured in
design annuals and awards competitions. This year, it is one of the
recipients of Great Britain's Green Apple Awards for environmental
best practices, joining past winners including Volvo, Honda and BP.
The founders traveled to Copenhagen, where Tricycle was one of
twenty-four finalists for an international INDEX: award for "design
to improve life" (up against Google, Apple and Ford Motor Company).
In January 2006, Tricycle was nominated for a Cooper-Hewitt
National Design Award for Corporate Achievement.
Tricycle's ability to connect with designers was built upon the
founders' understanding that today's market does not endorse
innovation as an end in itself, any more than it supports
technology for its own sake. Design, no technology, the hub where
new ideas meet—and even create—market demand. The timing could not
have been better. In 2002 the interiors industry was experiencing
the first big waves of a movement toward environmentally friendly
design and construction, from groups such as the U.S. Green
Building Association and the Carpet America Recovery Effort.
Tricycle stepped into a gap that no one was addressing—the waste
generated in the design process. Given that we live in the first
time in history that we can create something without having to
manufacture it, Tricycle's founders asked, why accept wasted time
and resources? Why accept waste at all?
As the design community began to demand Tricycle's simulation, the
company's sales team was ready to demonstrate how this demand was,
in essence, the market giving manufacturers permission to cut
sampling costs and drive products to market faster. Today, merely
three years after the company's founding, Tricycle works with eight
of the top ten commercial carpet manufacturers. In the past twelve
months, nearly 35,000 SIM from TricycleT prints have been shipped
to architects and designers, keeping 52,000 pounds of carpet out of
landfill and saving manufacturers $4.7 million. Tricycle's product
development services are also being used internally at carpet mills
to prototype new products, enabling even further reduction of the
environmental and economic footprint of manufacturing.
Such quick return on their strategy enabled the company to position
itself for expansion into parallel markets. While spotlighting
design to create market demand, Tricycle built internal capacity by
accepting one-off projects from manufacturers. This has allowed the
company to prove itself to each manufacturer on an individual,
customer-service-centric basis, as well as to establish processes
informed by opportunities and challenges encountered in real-world
While delivering quick, capability-proving results and establishing
repeatable processes, Tricycle has continued its relationship with
the designer community, setting up a pipeline of information that
helps to direct its growth. Younger designers in particular,
schooled in digital tools and environmentally sound design
principles, have embraced Tricycle's call to refuse design waste.
In response, product manufacturers from a variety of markets have
sought out Tricycle's founders for consulting and services. New
opportunities range from floorcovering mills in Europe and Asia to
a new carpet brand that will use only virtual samples, to companies
in other sectors including textiles, wallcovering, and furniture.
By proving itself in a market that was tough to persuade, Tricycle
has positioned itself as ready to address the problem of design
waste generated by every surface, in every built space, in the
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