It took 26 trees to transform Lindsay Smith from a screenwriter into an entrepreneur. One night in 2001, Smith noticed red Xs on ficus trees in her Gardena (Calif.) neighborhood. The next morning, the trees were being cut down because their roots were damaging the sidewalks. Says Smith: "These were healthy, mature trees that were being destroyed." She persuaded county officials to stop, and to give her 48 hours to find another option.
In those two days she searched for sidewalk materials that might coexist with stately trees better than concrete. Her best lead came from Richard Valeriano, the senior public works inspector in Santa Monica. At his urging, U.S. Rubber Recycling had made a prototype of sidewalk pavers from recycled tires. Smith showed the prototype to county officials, and they left the remaining trees standing. U.S. Rubber's CEO encouraged Smith to try to improve the prototype. "I was raised in a house where inventing was a common thing," says Smith, adding that her grandfather came up with an insulated cup for Thermos.
Her own innovation was Rubbersidewalks, a company that has installed footpaths made of recycled tires in 60 cities in the U.S. and Canada and has fielded requests from three continents. The rubber squares, joined by interlocking dowels, are cut to fit and installed over a layer of crushed granite. Each paver can be removed for repairs. In 2006, Smith's 12-person company had more than $1 million in sales. Next year she plans to move some production to New York to cut costs for East Coast customers.
Smith launched with a $250,000 matching grant from the California Integrated Waste Management Board. Thanks to her excellent credit rating, she was able to "match" that sum with her credit cards. "I am not encouraging people to use that model, but without it I wouldn't have been able to use the grant," she says. She set about improving the prototype, making the rubber look more like concrete and making it more durable. Her biggest challenge was in hardening it, so pedestrians wouldn't have to change stride between rubber and concrete sections of a sidewalk. In 2004, an investor saw Rubbersidewalks featured on TV and offered the company $100,000, launching Rubbersidewalks' sales effort.
Many of Smith's customers face predicaments similar to that of Gordon Mann, the public works superintendent for Redwood City, Calif. His 2003 budget included $1 million for pruning tree roots and repairing concrete walkways. The next year, Mann started using Rubbersidewalks to replace sidewalks adjacent to trees.
While Rubbersidewalks initially cost Mann's department about 50% more than concrete, Mann says a typical root pruning in his city costs $150 to $300. And because the pavers can be installed closer to trees than concrete, Mann doesn't have to get easements, saving about $300 per house. His ultimate savings will depend on how long the sidewalks last. Says Mann: "If they only last five years, we may not have made the best choice." Smith says they should last at least seven years.
She sees other benefits as well. The pavers reduce the number of lawsuits from people who trip or fall over broken concrete. They don't contribute to the increase in urban temperatures caused by hot pavements, asphalt, and buildings. And, of course, they help save trees and reduce the amount of rubber in landfills.
For Smith, the move from screenwriting to entrepreneurship has been smoother than expected. At first, she says, "there was a conflict between being a creative person and being a businessperson. It was almost as if that was a betrayal." The feeling passed. "Creating a product that didn't exist and persuading people that they need it is not so different from inspiring people through writing," Smith explains. Plus, there are 14 trees in Gardena—and countless more in other towns—that wouldn't exist if not for her.
By Stacy Perman