When the economy has people tightening their purse strings, Castle Ink is allowing them to buy their printer ink for less than marked value. How? By recycling.

While the idea of reusing an old cartridge is not exactly new, the process generally included a kit which left you trying to figure out how much ink to put in and hope that there wasn’t a huge mess once you were done. Rather, Castle Ink recycles old ink cartridges and fill them to be purchased again for less. The mess is not in your hands. They also offer a recycling program which will pay others to send in their own empty cartridges.

Lauren Elward is a mom, teacher, and the founder of Castle Ink. Like many businesses, it started with a personal need. The cost of replacing her ink cartridges was adding up and she knew there had to be another use for them once they’d been used up. Spotting the potential in the market, she took advantage of it and a successful business was born.

What was your inspiration for launching Castle Ink?

As with most teachers, I found myself buying HP ink cartridges for my printer at least once per month. The copy machines were often broken and I found myself having to use my own money to print and copy lessons from my home printer. It was extremely expensive. Not to mention the waste I felt I was generating by throwing away the used cartridges. It was at that point where I realized there could be a market for alternatives to the high priced ink cartridges offered from name brands like Hewlett Packard and Epson.

What advantages does a recycled ink cartridge have over a new one?

The main advantage to customers is a significant cost savings, without sacrificing ink quality. Our recycled cartridges produce the same quality output as new cartridges. Unfortunately it is a common belief that consumers are obligated to purchase expensive brand name ink cartridges from the manufacturer, or the printer’s warranty will be voided. This is not true – by law, the use of compatible replacement cartridges does not void the printer’s warranty. As the name suggests remanufactured cartridges are rebuilt from used empty cartridges. The remanufacturing process is not just about refilling the cartridges; they are taken apart, repaired, new parts are used if needed, and than they are refilled with ink. We maintain the high quality standards during the remanufacturing process so that the quality of the ink and any replaced part is the same as the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) quality. Cartridges go through various recycling and reprocessing steps to ensure quality, and are tested after manufacturing in real time printing.

Besides the considerable cost savings, a huge advantage of remanufactured cartridges is the role they play in protecting the environment. Each year, millions of empty toner and inkjet cartridges are thrown into the trash, ending up in our planet’s landfills or incinerators. Recycling these empty cartridges helps reduce solid waste, conserves raw materials and the energy needed to produce a new product. Most cartridges can actually be recycled up to six times. Few people realize that ink cartridges are constructed out of plastic, petroleum-based products and take about 1,000 years to decompose. The recovery and reuse of empty printer cartridges diverts millions of cubic feet of material from waste disposal, saving us the millions of tax dollars needed to pay for additional landfill management.

On average, how much is saved when someone purchases a recycled cartridge?

On average our remanufactured cartridges cost 40% less than new, genuine replacements.

What is your recycling program? Do you have a minimum, or maximum, for recycled cartridges? Who pays shipping?

Castle Ink Cartridges sponsors an ink cartridge recycling program that pays consumers up to $4.00 for each empty ink cartridge. Most HP, Canon, Lexmark and Dell ink cartridges can be recycled. There is no minimum or maximum number of cartridges that customers can send to us. We pay for shipping when a customer sends 30 or more cartridges back to us for recycling.

Since your launch in 2005, how has Castle Ink grown?

I guess I’d describe the growth as organic and to some extent viral. The growth has been organic in that we’re not spending money on advertising to drive traffic and sales on the site. Instead by optimizing our site, offering high quality products at low prices, and by providing helpful content, tips and advice we’ve been able to slowly attract a larger and larger user base. We find links to our articles and tips across the Internet in blogs, forums, and on other web sites. Additionally we find that the majority of our customers are “repeat” customers. So as we attract more and more new customers, we quickly add to our repeat user base. We also find that customers tell their friends and family about Castle Ink — besides search engines, friends & family referrals remains our top driver of site visitation.

In terms of financial growth, our sales doubled year-over-over, and we’re projecting at least 50% growth for this year.

Starting a business is its own lesson. What did you learning from your business during the startup process? What has it taught you since then?

I think recognizing that I couldn’t “conquer Rome in a day” was the biggest challenge and probably the most important thing I gleaned from the experience. In the early days I was anxious to get the site designed and built — but there were key foundational considerations that needed my attention first. For example, taking a step back I realized the importance of forming the right type of business (an LLC) to protect myself, my family and my future employees. The amount of work to get the company running, plus coordinating the design and production processes become overwhelming for me at many different points. While it was difficult to come to grips with it, I finally came to the realization that I couldn’t do everything in a day. That’s when keeping running lists became critical to me — I always carried around a pen and piece of paper. On the paper I kept a list of all the things I needed to do on one side, and on the other, I jotted down notes and ideas that popped into my head during the day. Believe it or not the lists really kept me focused and grounded, and most importantly, reduced my anxieties. I continue to keep a piece of paper and pen with me at all times.

Did you always believe that you would become an entrepreneur?

Definitely not. While I attended a business school (Bryant University), oddly enough I was actually a communications major. I dreaded the accounting and finance courses, and really anything that was business related. While in college I realized that I wanted to be an English Teacher, and I followed that path. In all honestly I never expected to run anything but a classroom.

Are there any plans for expansion with your current business or possibly starting a new business in the near future?

We’re actually focused on an expansion project this year. We’re working on outsourcing some of the operational functions so we can focus on core business areas. I can’t get into the details of upcoming business plans, but we’re hoping a key strategic partnership will drive at least a 25% increase in sales. Additionally we’re expanding our customer focus beyond just business-to-consumer, hoping to attract more business-to-business sales, and even school and government sales. For now our focus remains on Castle Ink, but we do have a 5-year plan which involves a new line of business, and launching a new web property.

Do you have any secrets, or tips, to balancing business with family life?

I think keeping a running list is probably the best advice I can give anyone. It helped me stay focused, and more importantly, it helped me pace myself. With a crying baby, laundry to do, and dinner to be made I didn’t have much time to devote to business work. So I needed to stay organized, and tackle one item at a time if I was to make home and business both work for me and my family.

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