digital disruptors | Jul 23, 2021 |
The company bringing a people-first approach to material sampling

As the design realm continues to catch up on its late arrival to tech adoption, the new frontier for innovation seems to lie between designers and manufacturers. In recent years, startups have cropped up that attempt to unite a fragmented industry through digital infrastructure—the most notable example being Material Bank, which offers a digital marketplace for materials sampling and recently secured $100 million in Series C funding. Another recent contender is Source, a B2B marketplace for commercial construction that wants to merge the physical and digital aspects of the design business.

For Source CEO Nicole Schmidt, it’s been clear that an industry as tactile as design requires an inventive approach. She has witnessed workflow from both sides of the market, beginning her career as a designer at a commercial architecture firm before switching gears to a role as a manufacturer’s representative. In the process, she began to take note of pain points both logistical and physical—she once slipped when inside a materials library collecting a box of stone samples, dumping the heavy load onto her head.

“It was a particular moment when I remember thinking, This industry is so massive and wide-reaching. It’s 5 percent of U.S. GDP, 40 percent of carbon emissions, 40 million tons of waste in the U.S. alone every year,” says Schmidt. “This is an area that we should, as an industry, be putting more technology into. Understanding the components of these materials, the makeup, the values of the products and the people who make them—we can really do better than dusty old closets in the back of firms.”

So she entered the tech solutions arena, teaching herself to code in her basement in order to get her fledgling platform off the ground. In 2018, Source launched in her hometown of Portland, Oregon; Schmidt then spent the following year building out the site’s tools and services before a nationwide debut in 2020.

As a resource for commercial architects and designers, Source provides product information and support for every step in the design process. For example, a designer might visit the platform to research and discover a tile they want to use for an upcoming project—from there, they can order a sample to their office, then reach out to a rep to ask about pricing, installation parameters, lead times and other specifications. Users can also access additional project management tools, such as presentation templates and budgeting materials.

“We keep all of that workflow centralized for the architects and designers; otherwise, it’s a slew of Chrome tabs and emails back and forth,” says Schmidt.

While those services are offered nationwide, select cities also host in-person facilities, where tech-enabled material libraries house products that are bar-coded, inventoried and uploaded to the site upon arrival. Designers can check remotely to see what samples are in stock in their city for same-day delivery and dropoff. The company recently announced a series of new locations, with outposts coming to Portland, Seattle, Honolulu, New York and Phoenix. As pandemic restrictions continue to lift, Schmidt hopes the spaces will act as extensions of the users’ firms, allowing teams to utilize Source’s conference rooms for meetings and client presentations. The in-person aspect ties in to the company’s “phygital” ethos: The industry can’t move forward into the digital realm without retaining certain physical elements.

“It goes back to that idea in design that it is a really collaborative industry, and relationships are really important,” says Schmidt. “Both on our digital platform and in our physical space, we want to continue to enhance those relationships and facilitate the connections needed to create beautiful buildings.”

Compared to operations like Material Bank, which have moved to occupy a similar digital place along the logistics pipeline, Source bills itself as an engine to facilitate project decisions throughout the entire design process. Rather than charging per SKU or sample, manufacturers are charged a flat fee to upload their full catalog to the platform, with orders from designers sent out through manufacturers (and sometimes processed through Material Bank).

“It’s really about engaging the community and helping people work on projects,” says Schmidt. “For us, it’s about that full project life cycle.”

Though the home industry arrived late to the digital game, it’s Schmidt’s hope that it uses the extra time to do things differently. Of the platform’s 30 million data points, one-quarter are people-related, with a focus on tying architects and designers to manufacturers’ representatives in their area—and she has made sure that behind the site’s extensively documented product catalog, there are lines of communication just as readily in place for users to connect with a human expert. At the intersection of the digital, physical and human-centric, she’s beginning to see a future for the industry that’s improved by tech.

Homepage photo: Nicole Schmidt, CEO of Source | Courtesy of Nicole Schmidt

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