CloudLab was launched seven and a half years ago. Marc Horriar speaks openly and honestly about entrepreneurial fortune and reveals the basis of his success. He emphasizes the reliability of his colleagues from the very beginning and captivates Bernd Zipper with his performance. Over the years, CloudLab has developed under its own steam, from the first Online Print Symposium to a provider of web-to-print software that is now in demand worldwide. This is particularly exciting because the solutions help not only large corporations but also small, innovative companies to earn real money with smart ideas. After reading you will be inspired. I guarantee it!
Read a shorter version of the interview here, a longer one in beyondprint unplugged or listen to the full-length interview in the our podcast series, ZIPPERS INSIGHTS or via Spotify.
Bernd Zipper: CloudLab is now in demand worldwide in the web-to-print sector, isn’t it?
Marc Horriar: We are widely used. We currently have offices in Dortmund, Berlin, Romania, Liechtenstein and the USA. We have sales partners in Scandinavia, Poland, UK and France.
Bernd Zipper: Where are your professional roots?
Marc Horriar: I started my professional career at Hiflex. That was a manufacturer of ERP and web-to-print software for print shops.
Bernd Zipper: They already had an editor.
Marc Horriar: It was a form editor, so in the end it wasn’t HTML5. I started my apprenticeship there. Then I quickly got into project management and took care of the web-to-print projects. From there I changed to a customer of Hiflex. But I soon realized that I would rather work for a software company for the printing industry. That’s when I had the idea of starting my own business with two partners. Today we have five branches, fifty-five employees, twenty of whom are programmers for web-to-print and online stores. We see ourselves confidently as one of the market leaders in the web-to-print sector worldwide. This is simply fun and gives one great pride.
Bernd Zipper: You backed the right horse with the whole field of web-to-print, e-business print. In other words, everything that makes print sales and print generation possible on a web basis. I find that particularly fascinating, because at that time everyone was already talking about stores or similar, but some of them didn’t really understand what an online store was all about. Was it, in the beginning, a different job to sell online print, web-to-print, than it is today?
Marc Horriar: By 2013, 2014 it was quite clear that a certain amount of management consulting was required. Why sell print products online? Why might the customer do this in a closed store instead of an open store? However, at least in Germany, this quickly became a thing of the past. That’s not just because the printing industry has developed over time. I think it’s because the customer base of CloudLab has changed a lot over time. At the beginning we launched our software on the market at very low prices. Then, towards drupa, we moved more into the high-priced segment. We gained customers who switched from other systems or wanted to replace an in-house development and do more. Today, we hardly do any management consulting in Germany. However, the further we move away from Germany, the more we have to occupy this field. We are noticing this in the USA. Our entire marketing is based on: “You know why you do web-to-print. You know how web-to-print works. But you simply want to have the right tool to implement it.” That doesn’t work in the USA. In the USA they simply want to hear from us: “Why should I do web-to-print at all?” We had to get used to that. Funnily enough, the opposite is true for packaging. Here it is the case that in Germany we have to explain: “Why don’t you do web-to-print?” That is different in the USA. In the USA, we get almost all our inquiries from the packaging sector. They often already have systems in use. All we have to do is supply the technology, but no longer give input to the business processes and the ideas behind them.
Bernd Zipper: What’s the most exciting project in recent times?
Marc Horriar: Shortly before Christmas, the Lindt Advent calendar will go online. It is simply great to work with such large companies. The project itself is, technologically speaking, simple. The usability is interesting. How do you manage to present a complex topic simply for the user? Technologically speaking, the most interesting project is a new one, but that’s not yet live. We have developed an artificial intelligence that ultimately supports the customer in designing products with variable dimensions. Let’s take the packaging, there you choose a box and enter the AWH dimension. (Editor’s note: A or L is the dimension between the side flaps, W is the width dimension and H is the height dimension parallel to the length of the glued seam). On this basis, the stamp outline is created and then the design is done with Illustrator or similar products. This is the professional way. The problem is, if the novice works in the editor, he finds an empty template and has to go and design the packaging. That’s easy in the editor, but if we’re honest, the packaging that comes out won’t look good. A year and a half ago my partner, Ionut, who runs our business in Romania, found a solution to this. Depending on the size, the template adapts. So, in the end, we developed an AI method based on countless variables to test how a template can be adapted. The algorithm gets better every time. This is definitely the most complicated thing we have done technologically.
Bernd Zipper: Packaging is such a hot topic at the moment. Printers expect you to know your way around it. There is a difference between making a folding box and complex packaging. How did you develop this know-how?
Marc Horriar: Especially when it comes to the corrugated board. Julian from Printmate has helped us a lot. He was the first to tell us: “You can create a 3D preview, then you can easily generate a packaging and animate it in a way. He was the first to point out to us that inner dimensions and outer dimensions of packaging can be two completely different things. So that’s where this started. None of this was dimensionally variable, but simply a static box of a certain size. But we also wanted to be able to design packaging with variable dimensions. We were looking for companies that could help us understand what is actually needed in packaging. How can you calculate prices sensibly? What is a CF2 file? (Editor’s note: CAD file that contains 3D package designs or other model data) It was easy to inspire the companies. It was important to us that large corporations and small packaging printers, both European and American companies were present. In the project meetings we tried to understand how the whole thing works. We have learned a hell of a lot since then.
Bernd Zipper: It’s another world.
Marc Horriar: Absolutely. We are currently working on technologies that take into account three-dimensionality as well as the shape of the wave. It is a highly complicated but exciting topic.
Bernd Zipper: Not only have you mastered Magento, but you also do other store systems. Do you see yourself more as a producer of editors or stores? How can your company be described?
Marc Horriar: CloudLab does quite a lot. Our standard project is a web-to-print store based on Magento. It includes a web-to-print editor and a production connection. The bigger our customers became, the more often the question arose as to how we could integrate parts of our technology into their store or workflow. We can do the classic, complete Open Shop, cewe Print would be an example. With Flyeralarm, Lindt or Saxoprint, only the editor is used. Another possibility is that no front end is visible, and the workflow works automatically in the background. Version 6 of our software, which will be released at the end of the year, will push forward the interface concept. This will involve print price calculation and production connection with special definitions. All of this is modular and built into Magento via interface. This can be easily integrated into Shopware or Shopify. That is the path we are currently taking here. We are a web-to-print technology company that manages projects based on Magento itself, but for the future we are looking for implementation partners for other store frameworks such as WooCommerce, Shopify or Hybris.
Bernd Zipper: People are starting to design not only greeting cards and the like, but also more complex things on their cell phones. This requires different rules and completely different handling. Are you involved with an app or what are your ideas?
Marc Horriar: In general, our software is suitable for mobile use. But not via app. We are not developing a native app that you download and install in the App Store. Instead, we follow the path of web apps and make the website responsive. From a certain size of the screen on, we assume that no mouse is used, but that a touch interface is required instead. This was already completely implemented at the last drupa. Unfortunately, I have to say that most of the business-to-business projects still ignore this. In the end, however, it is the same people who use their cell phones to order in the evening. In B2C projects, especially our Lindt project, mobile first is the approach. Basically, I always say that when you do the advertising on Facebook, the interface on the cell phone has to work.
Bernd Zipper: In our opinion, social media printing is already more than a trend. Do you have customers there?
Marc Horriar: It is an area that we definitely have on our screens. We are currently working on a new product: Xmedia stands for Cross Media. You could call it the DirectSmile legacy, but it goes far beyond that. It has the approach that you can print social media directly or display a social media banner instead. We already have one or the other executable prototype in a native app. But these projects are very customer-driven.
Bernd Zipper: Is Xmedia about image personalization?
Marc Horriar: We already have image personalization in our software. Xmedia is basically a campaign tool. You can design a complete campaign for the printQ customer. For example, there is an article in the shopping cart that is not being ordered. Then the printQ system will automatically communicate with the Xmedia system and arrange for the customer to be sent an order request. In addition, a note that shipping is free of charge if the customer orders now. Here I see a great added value for our customers. It automates remarketing or retargeting.
Bernd Zipper: A clear B2C requirement.
Marc Horriar: First and foremost, a clear B2C requirement. The other track is the agency business. Agencies may have a car manufacturer as a customer. Let’s assume that they are planning a recall or inspection call. Then there are various rules and variables. These rules are stored with us so that our editors can react. We automatically create the print data, send it by e-mail or create a post on Facebook. That is the idea of Xmedia. We’ve set up our own team for this and at the end of the year it will really take off.
Bernd Zipper: You are the one who brings the USA and Europe together. You are the one who takes care of all the key accounts. What have the rapid developments in recent years done to you as a person?
Marc Horriar: I have become much more experienced and calmer, I would say. If you hire an inexperienced employee, who perhaps even goes to university, and a customer has a complaint, whether right or wrong, then he is very excited. That’s when I often see myself again and think back to my time at Hiflex. Today I think to myself, I should first of all pick a battle plan and see what’s going on. I am now much better able to classify priorities and I simply know what is important. Internationalization is my baby at CloudLab. But I think I’ve managed to hand it off pretty well. Many companies fail because the entrepreneur can never really let go and is somehow involved in every area. We have established a good structure. We have someone responsible for the US business and someone for the distribution business. After some experience, that works quite well for us.
Bernd Zipper: Some of them have been with you from the beginning. You were already on the road with them at Hiflex.
Marc Horriar: Lonut Berescu, Herbert Bischof and I founded the company. Andreas Storms was then directly involved in the second round. I knew both Lonut and Herbert from Hiflex. Lonut was the development manager for the Web-to-Print project. Herbert, in turn, was the managing director of Hiflex’s largest customer in Liechtenstein at the time. That’s why we have our Liechtenstein holding company, because Herbert is simply a Liechtensteiner. That’s how it all came together. We then needed people. The people I knew were of course Hiflex employees. So, I picked out a bit of the crème de la crème and then strengthened the team. At CloudLab we are very proud that we have never really lost any important employees. The entire founding team is still on board. Nico, Mac, Lothar, Andreas, and the rest of you are all still here and have been loyal to the company since the last drupa, when the success really took off.
Bernd Zipper: I find it fascinating that you have managed to do this completely without outside capital. You have earned your money and you have grown from it. A conservative attitude, actually.
Marc Horriar: I would say a conservative attitude coupled with a very strong entrepreneurial focus. We have had an average of thirty percent growth throughout the years. There were years of this, we grew by sixty or seventy percent. That was quite enormous. When the company started, after HP bought Hiflex, we offered Hiflex customer support, because we were familiar with the web-to-print software. We used it to pay our bills. In the background we worked on our web-to-print software. When HP hired Hiflex, we were incredibly lucky. You have to say that. It took us about a month to be able to offer our software with a clear conscience. So, we have always financed ourselves from the current cash flow. In the end, we achieved great growth and invested the profits again and again. We also invested a lot in the USA. drupa was incredibly expensive for us. I remember once seeing a monthly statement and thinking to myself: Phew, you currently need a hundred thousand euros a month to cover your costs. If we compare that with today, you won’t get far with a hundred thousand.
Bernd Zipper: Due to the rapid growth you have become a big player. Were there any approaches to take you on?
Marc Horriar: One flirts with the idea from time to time. Getting into bed is something else entirely. We have a good life at CloudLab and earn a lot of money. We have a good idea and know where we want to go. I don’t like the word start-up. Start-up is often associated with exit. This is definitely not the plan I have here for the company.
Bernd Zipper: Seven years ago, CloudLab was a very modern name. Cloud just came up; everyone was thinking about it. Now CloudLab is the laboratory in the cloud, and if you combine it like that, it’s almost old-fashioned again.
Marc Horriar: At the first Online Print Symposium, Andreas and I were still there as visitors. We didn’t have a booth then. We had our name tag and it said CloudLab on it. We were approached by I don’t know how many companies: CloudLab? That sounds interesting. What do you do? What a great name! The problem with CloudLab was that it was not marketable.
If you type CloudLab into Google, you’ll find everything but print software. That has to be said. That’s why printQ came up as a name. Why printQ? One of our customers had the printQ brand, which was a business idea, with logo, domains, and everything. They said to us that they didn’t need that. If we we can buy it from them. We didn’t think about it for long. And from that we developed Xmedia, createX, packQ and everything else we have now. CloudLab is now just a name. For me it no longer has the meaning Cloud & Lab. Today, it is simply far more that which stands behind the cloud. That is how I would describe it.
Bernd Zipper: Actually, you are heading for a brand. At Adobe, nobody thinks about the fact that it translates as Mexican roof tiles. Your development is great and if you do web-to-print, then you are certainly heading towards a book or publishing system. Are there any approaches?
Marc Horriar: Yes, indeed. Not only approaches, but the software is actually ready for it. It runs internally under the cool name of Brochure Editor. Not so insanely sexy. We still have to come up with something with Q or X. I don’t even want to say if they are books now. First of all, the focus is on brochures, i.e. twenty, forty, eighty pages with a cool usability. It’s fun to use the system. We’ll need a few more months until the standard delivery is ready. Books are a big issue. In itself, our software can calculate the spine thickness and what else you have to consider. But having the individual tools does not mean that the product is good. If we have a customer who needs it, we have the technological building blocks and combine them sensibly in a project. The only thing where we are quite firm and do absolutely nothing are photo books. There are some customers who do that with our software. But let me make it quite clear that we don’t have any photo book software. I would have a higher standard when it comes to sorting pictures.
Bernd Zipper: Of course, there are already quite a few on the market. A Gartner study on web-to-print was recently published. They didn’t really recognize you, or the German market in general, in that way. Did you not advertise enough in the USA?
Marc Horriar: Gartner has tried to get information about us one or two times. But I didn’t like the appearance. The approach did not impress me. They have already noticed us. And it’s such a big place, there is always the question, who notices you? The whole company or just one contact person? CloudLab has three hundred customers in thirty-five countries worldwide. In the USA, CloudLab is unknown, to be honest. We count the USA together with Canada and Mexico. The market is so huge, and we have around thirty customers there. That’s nothing and will certainly take a while. To be honest, I was expecting drupa this year. We now have Americans working for us, they are very well networked. In the USA, we are in fact focusing much more on packaging – the market is much wider there. I believe that next year will be the time when people will know us.
Bernd Zipper: You work for very large and very small companies. Surely there are a few curiosities?
Marc Horriar: We know an incredible number of interesting aspects. For example, a customer once mentioned that a function in the software was only available in English, but he had only learned Russian at school. I found that amusing. Happywords is one of my favorite customers, I just have to say that. Happywords.de is, as Matthias Felger himself says, a moronic idea, but he makes money with it. A printer friend of mine sent him to us.
Bernd Zipper: And what do they do?
Marc Horriar: They have so-called Word Clouds. SEO texts, which were used to optimize Google ten years ago. From these word clouds, for example, a heart of text was formed. He prints these things. In the beginning he went there, built a store with a small free store software. He offered a field in which the customer should write their words. He then built this in InDesign. He did that for a weekend and then had two insights: Point one, the market is there. Point two, he sits until four o’clock in the morning to build these things in InDesign. He then took it offline again and looked for a software solution. We went there and wrote an algorithm for him, which, based on the words, forms the desired shape. It’s very exciting technologically and it’s simply unbelievable what goes on over there. I remember being in the area the day before Mother’s Day and stopping by. I walked in and there were cups everywhere in his company. Somehow it went viral on Facebook that you could order Mother’s Day cups with a heart in which your own words are written.
Bernd Zipper: Mass customization is one of the megatrends. Can you see that in the requirements?
Marc Horriar: We have implemented all kinds of promotional items, right up to personalized soap dispensers. We have inquiries about all kinds of products that can be personalized in some way. We even had someone once who wanted to make a complete car personalizable in the printQ editor. You can tell already that this is increasing. In the statistics of the individual stores, you can see that the average print run is constantly decreasing, but that personalization is constantly increasing. The bottom line is clear: less mass production and more mass customization.
Bernd Zipper: 2020 is not necessarily a time for us to shout hurrah. The printing industry has taken a bad turn. What are your experiences? Was the time used to catch up or did many projects get stuck for the time being?
Marc Horriar: Geographically, you have to subdivide it a bit. In Germany, or let’s say in the DACH area, it has been a bit of a balance. Many projects were blocked or stopped in March. At the same time, we received other projects. Maybe due to Corona, because it became clear to customers that okay, we really need this new web store that we’ve been talking about for two years now. What we noticed very strongly was that it was being used by our large customers. The projects have gained exorbitant priority with the corporations. We have one, with almost a hundred thousand employees, and the Group CEO got involved and said: The project now has top priority. Internationally we are simply overrun with inquiries. We have sold software to Nepal, to Cambodia, to everywhere. Web-to-print is generally not yet so advanced. Corona has now given us another push. In the USA we noticed that the staff has been hit hard. This is the only area at CloudLab where we have seen a decline in sales. In fact, we had our strongest fiscal year once again. That doesn’t say much at CloudLab now, because we are growing every year. It hurts us that drupa was cancelled, whereas the Corona crisis did not really affect us, at least not in our figures. Of course, there are limitations in our lives, but that’s a different story.
Bernd Zipper: Many thanks for the interview. On that note, may God bless the arts!