At the Online Print Symposium, the speakers are “hand-picked” from a wide variety of backgrounds and all have a unique history. Nevertheless, some still distinguish themselves even when they reach the top. During the 8th OPS, held at the beginning of March this year, Patrick Leibold from the Kartenmacherei received some of the very best feedback. In a refreshing openness he told of his journey and the path of his company. He reported on defeats and successes and exuded a composure that even in times of crisis, he still has a good work-life balance. Patrick Leibold, Co-CEO of celebrate, opened up to Bernd Zipper and described his view of a new work environment as an alternative approach, not solely through the crisis.
Bernd Zipper: If someone is thinking about how to make cards online in Germany, then they soon come to Kartenmacherei. And if one considers who are the secret heroes of our industry, then one quickly arrives at “better”. Why did you now rename yourself to celebrate?
Patrick Leibold: A lot has changed in the last months of Corona. We have been “better” and we are still “better”, but we have been making some crucial changes. We’ve combined what makes Kartenmacherei what it is in the web-to-print and event sectors and called the whole thing “celebrate”.
Bernd Zipper: “better” is basically the idea of trying out new concepts and starting other activities. Actually, the “better group” is an association of different companies. You raised the question of the market need and how to meet it. This is a very unique approach. Not, I have a print shop and what can I do to fill it up, right?
Patrick Leibold: Right. Christoph Behn was surely concerned more with the product than with anything else when he founded Kartenmacherei. With Straub Druck + Medien AG in Schramberg he found a partner who was able to help him and contribute the necessary know-how. All he had was a personal need. He and his wife Jennie received a card for the birth of their first son. Jennie thought the idea was great, but the implementation mediocre. Christoph thought that he would like to have something better. So he looked for someone who understood what he identified as a customer’ s need. That was Francisco Martinez, from Straub. Jennie and Christoph founded Kartenmacherei together and built it up. Building products based on needs worked very well for Kartenmacherei and we are trying to continue the series and broaden our horizons a bit.
Bernd Zipper: Does this mean that you now have more plans in addition to Kartenmacherei? How are you going to proceed?
Patrick Leibold: We have established a team that deals with further development in a well-structured way, conducts customer interviews, explores markets and develops business ideas. These business ideas can be turned into products, tested and, under certain circumstances, used very quickly. Not every idea and not every need you think you have identified can be converted into a scalable product. We have based the first items very closely on Kartenmacherei, a couture service, a design service for married people. We built an app and we tested different ideas around Kartenmacherei, and discarded many things. For example, we took over a jewelry company because we believed that selling jewelry was the next best thing to getting into the same market. When someone buys an invitation, they need rings. But unfortunately it turned out that nobody wants to buy rings online. The market is simply not there yet, so we quickly stopped this experiment.
Bernd Zipper: In other words “Fail fast”, so to say? Or did you sink a lot of money into it?
Patrick Leibold: Indeed we have. You have to have the courage to fail. The art is to quickly recognize when a product is not scalable, does not work or when the market is not there yet. That doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in the market, but it’s not our style to build something now and then wait ten, fifteen years until the market goes online.
Bernd Zipper: It’s really cool to see that you’re really daring to try out new things, that you’re testing it, that you’re thinking about working environments and so on and so on. How do you get the money for all of that?
Patrick Leibold: We run a very well functioning core business. Kartenmacherei is growing at a constant rate of over 30 percent every year and before Corona, we were well on our way to exceeding the 60 million annual turnover in a very profitable way this year. We are using this commercial success to build new business models. None of us knows how the card online business will continue. We do not want to be substituted at any time. For this reason, we are trying to build up further pillars and offer services around Kartenmacherei that are also of interest to customers. We want to become a little more independent and will continue to significantly expand our entire portfolio.
Bernd Zipper: Why would you say, you are successful with greeting cards and others are not? Do you do more social media, are you closer to your customers? What is the secret of success?
Patrick Leibold: It’s a good mix of everything. We see ourselves as a design product company. We are not a classic e-commerce shop, but we plan products according to customer needs. Not everything that can be printed is appreciated by the customer. On the other hand, the customer may want things that are not yet offered. For these cases, you need tinkerers and hackers who can make these things possible.
Bernd Zipper: So product hackers?
Patrick Leibold: Product hacker, exactly. We have the right allies at Straub, which is why we finally decided to operate there and take over Straub’s digital printing division. Together we can further develop products. We can implement what the customer wants with innovative solutions. But we also know how to get these products to the market. We market classically via search engine marketing, but we are also very much involved in social media. We create a need with the customer. Facebook and Instagram et cetera are very, very smart at tracking down people who have an event in the near future. The earlier we present our products, the better. This is important in order to be able to compete with others. I think this is something we are very good at. I think that we build the right product and then we know how to make it appealing to the customer.
Bernd Zipper: In other words, you use intelligent mechanisms on social media platforms to “scan” the market in advance. When can you launch the product? Not just scattered advertising, based on the motto: Hooray, I’m on Facebook. But rather, it’s targeted so that you can find out where an event is coming up and sell into it.
Patrick Leibold: Exactly.
Bernd Zipper: You make mass customization par excellence. And in that respect I particularly enjoy it. You are changing. You are now called Celebrate. What does the name mean?
Patrick Leibold: The new name simply describes a process that started some time ago, namely that Christoph and his wife, Jennie, continue to draw back into what they like to do and are very good at doing so. New business models start out small, think, implement and then build bigger. While the area around Kartenmacherei naturally also has one or two needs. The whole thing is always in competition with each other. Now Corona has come along. Our advantage derived from Kartenmacherei was suddenly called into question. There were no more weddings, there were no more events and we were in a completely new situation overnight. I think this made Christoph think more radically about the next steps. He wants to focus much more on the topic of new business models and he has made the decision for himself that it is not his wish to be CEO of a big company. We have discussed this, along with his brother Steffen, who has also been with us for a long time and was previously CTO, and myself. We agreed that we can certainly be enthusiastic about continuing the web-to-print and event business. And so we made the decision that Christoph and a small venture team will be focusing very strongly on new business models in the future under the name “better”. These are very likely to be far away from what Kartenmacherei and celebrate are doing today.
Bernd Zipper: Sounds like the four of you get along quite well. That’s unusual. You often have founders who do something together, they have a great idea, then they head in a certain direction and at some point envy starts. With you I have the feeling that you are already discussing exactly what you want to do and that you have a clear plan and are simply good friends.
Patrick Leibold: Absolutely. For me that was one of the decisive reasons for coming here. It was a tough situation for me to join a company that is run by a family. We took a lot of time to get to know each other at the beginning, even before I decided to come to Kartenmacherei. We were a cross-functional team and there were no responsibilities, but we tried to do what was right. That is one of our guiding principles and that is what we are guided by. And if upon reflection Christoph feels that he’s not the right CEO because a) he doesn’t enjoy it and b) he’s more likely to recognize this ability in other people, then it would be wrong to simply cling to this job simply because you like it on your business card or something like that. I think Christoph has also achieved enough to say, I am retiring. We talk honestly with each other and we made this decision together. There were intensive discussions, as you can imagine, but completely free of personal sensitivities and so we finally came to a very good solution.
Bernd Zipper: I find that admirable. You also have new ideas in the field of work environments. How can a print shop be organized, what about the wage structure or the cooperation? Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Patrick Leibold: We believe that if we involve and empower employees to make decisions and give them a free hand within the framework of a defined scope, then that relieves us and leads to significantly better results. That is our basic principle, and we implement it everywhere. The special challenge we currently have is to roll out these new work environments together with our coaching team in a classic industry, namely our recently acquired printing company. This has special challenges. Developers or marketing experts are more used to working flexibly. This is not yet the case in a printing company. We take the time we need and we try to implement progressive ideas and take people along and “enablers”, as they say.
Bernd Zipper: That means you spend money on coaches?
Patrick Leibold: Yes. They are trained coaches who work with our teams. The coach is a component of the leadership role that has been delegated to the coaching team by the classic line management. The coaches take on a kind of moderation and leadership function within the framework of defined parameters and help our teams to cope with an agile working environment. They help to resolve conflicts, help to moderate processes and formats and try to create as much efficiency as possible in an organization that at first glance seems a bit confused.
“Within the framework of defined processes and formats, coaches assume a kind of moderation and leadership function. We believe in involving employees and empowering them to make decisions and giving them a free hand within the scope of a set framework, relieving the management and leading to significantly better results.” – Patrick Leibold.
Bernd Zipper: I’m afraid that for a printer that has grown up in such a “standard” way, it sounds a bit esoteric.
Patrick Leibold: Yes, one gets the general impression and you always have to decide for yourself up to which point you go along with the whole thing. Our coaches are less dogmatic and very pragmatic. We believe that empowering employees leads to much better results. Dealing with this responsibility also means pressure for people who are not used to it, they need routines and they need a way to deal with this responsibility. Because otherwise it becomes negative stress and that’s what our coaches are good for, being the seismograph. If we expect too much from people, too much freedom is stress, then people burn out. Our coaches help us to reflect and to take the right steps at the right time.
Bernd Zipper: Since I have known you, I have noticed time and again that you really live by this ” Fail fast” motto. You can only do this if you have enough capital. That means, the idea at the start must be that I will earn enough money with what I do.
Patrick Leibold: We like to work and have fun doing it, but success is measured by, among other things, when it works commercially. We run companies with the intention of making a profit in the classic sense. That is not contradictory. Our ambition to take people with us also has a commercial background. Firstly, empowering people costs money, as they spend time on things that would normally be done by only a few. But in the end we are convinced that it leads to much better results and that we can act much faster. Next, it brings us much more than we have invested and then we have commercial success with it.
Bernd Zipper: How did you come to this realization? What did you do before?
Patrick Leibold: Before my studies I did my apprenticeship as a publishing house clerk. I was with Funke Mediengruppe for ten years and restructured traditional companies in the private equity field. There I saw many business models that didn’t work. I was able to form an opinion as to why they don’t work and develop an idea of how I would like to do it. However, the private equity field leaves little room for you because it has a short investment horizon. That was one of the most important reasons for me to go into Kartenmacherei. Here we build something up, we have time, we have the necessary calm to implement and test things. We did not come to the right results overnight.
Bernd Zipper: In other words, you learned practically from these “hardships”, that this is not my business?
Patrick Leibold: It’s a challenge to restructure struggling companies, but it doesn’t have much to do with building something long-term and sustainable. However, I enjoy it more. The people who work for us feel a much greater pleasure in their work because of the freedom they have, and that in turn makes me enjoy my work, gives me a motivation that I didn’t have before. Before it was very financially driven. Today, I had said yes, the financial aspect also plays a role, but there is so much more that is important to us, that must function at work. And we believe in that. To a certain extent it is always believing, because it is difficult to prove that it works better. What we can prove is that we are much more satisfied. We measure team satisfaction on a very regular basis and have extremely good values in this respect. Although we are now 300 people, we manage to keep the team satisfaction at an extremely high level.
Bernd Zipper: If you continue to grow, will you buy even more printers?
Patrick Leibold: We invested a seven-figure sum this year and will do the same next year. We will be growing significantly. We can use the entire area at Straub on site. We want to go more into letterpress and do various other things. It will be very, very interesting. We have ambitious plans for the coming years. We are always working with one or the other partner who gives us a capability that we don’t currently have. It’s not about learning it and then copying it and doing it ourselves, it’s about being able to do certain things and we build on that. We don’t get bogged down in overly ambitious plans that we want to be able to do everything from one day to the next, but we enjoy working together with other companies. For example, last Christmas it helped us a lot to have a multi-supplier strategy and to be a bit more flexible, and we will continue to do so in the future.
Bernd Zipper: What impact did Corona have on you?
Patrick Leibold: I believe it was the 10th or 11th of March, and you could see that sales were dropping off by the hour and there were no more weddings. From one day to the next we had empty order books. It was very sobering. It was very difficult to accept that, for a company that is used to permanent growth, we were suddenly shrinking significantly. At this point it becomes clear that our team is solid. What have we done? We thought about how we could react. We have tried to reduce infrastructure costs. We were moving very fast because we had decentralized decision-making processes. We were able to delegate a lot to a very large team. On the other hand, the people who work for us gave everything. Within a few days, we came to the joint decision that we as a company should go into short-time work on a principle of solidarity, 50 percent for everyone. And the decision is supported by the team. We looked ahead. What new opportunities does Corona bring us? There are a lot of changes in the way people live and work. After a certain period of quarantine, you have a great need for social closeness, but you can’t act on that, how can we help? Is there anything we can do to help our clients? Weddings have been cancelled. It caught people incredibly unprepared and in an extreme way. We have tried to be a team player as a company. On the one hand, we tried to set up new services that people needed in their new situation and, on the other hand, to stabilize and strengthen the customer relationship. This meant that we were able to soften the premium a little and, together with the cost measures, we are now coming through the crisis very well.
Bernd Zipper: But now you’re talking about new products, which is of course one of those things. Your name is Kartenmacherei, if you come to us with a book, how is that possible?
Patrick Leibold: That’s right, Kartenmacherei is very sharp. The occasional product, such as photo puzzles, murals and things like that, still allows for that. Or a photobook – but only as a supplement in the business model, it will never be our main driver. We have massively pushed the development of our celebrate app. We developed it as a wedding app and have now quickly switched over to family customers. It’s a photosharing app that also allows me to order photo products from it. The app changes the business model of Kartenmacherei. Kartenmacherei is a shop I go to and buy something because I have a need. With the celebrate app I share photos, which have a kind of network effect that creates a certain level of virality. So more and more people are invited to this app via the events they are used for and more and more people have a need to buy our products. That’s where we come in with classic picture boxes, retro prints, but also wall art and similar items. I share pictures of the youngsters taking their first steps with their grandparents, who sit isolated at home. Things like that. We went into it quite a bit and it worked out very well. A great momentum, created from Corona.
“If you try to identify customer needs and consistently align your corporate purpose with them, the “fail fast” strategy is a good idea. A fail fast concept is designed to detect and highlight errors or conditions at points of contact that cause errors. The discussion, free of personal emotions, supports this approach.” – Bernd Zipper
Bernd Zipper: Once again the approach is to ask what the customer needs and not which machine I have.
Patrick Leibold: Exactly. It wasn’t clear from the very outset how we were going to monetize this app. For starters, it’s a freely available, free photosharing app that tends to cost us money, because every photo that is uploaded costs us money for hosting. We said if we have a cool product that people want and it goes viral a bit, then I will be able to figure out how to monetize it. And the obvious thing to do is to do that through printed products. That’s where we originate from and we have a lot to offer and many items can then be incorporated there. We are going to offer more services. This is the entry point for us for much, much more. A much bigger business model than Kartenmacherei is perhaps today.
Bernd Zipper: The idea of such an app has been presented to me before. I didn’t believe that it would work. That was about two or three years ago now. Nowadays I would say, but it definitely works, because people want to take that moment with them, people want to capture the memory. It takes the thesis: if you want to hold on to something, print it.
Patrick Leibold: That’s what it’s all about, not just a photo – there are so many photos! Within the last four years, the worldwide volume of photos has doubled. These are incredible macro trends, which are also triggered by the fact that mobile phones have increasingly high-resolution cameras. Everyone takes countless photos every day. The intelligence must be how to find the right photos for a print product and how to help the customer make that choice. Some people have tried this, it’s not trivial, but the AI tools are making more and more progress. We are looking at how we can not only host pictures and turn them into a photo book, but also how we can make a design suggestion to the customer. These are the ways in which we think. We quickly learned that a classic invitation app does not work. So, in the beginning the idea was to simply make our cards digital. The market did not want that yet. But we have between 10,000 and 100,000 events a year that we can accompany through Kartenmacherei. If we give our app to these customers and they stick to this app and maybe invite some friends to join them, then something very big will result. I would call it a little Facebook and at the end of the day I have a photo hosting app that is used at every other event. Then all we have to do is help the customer filter the content by relevance. I have to give him the relevant picture and a design suggestion. Then we have to inspire the customer to buy a print product for the special photos. That is our business model.
Bernd Zipper: That is of course crass. Whenever we are on the road with end-users, my favourite word is DSGVO. How do you deal with it?
Patrick Leibold: When you don’t use it commercially and someone is on the road at a party or at a meeting where there are more than five people, it’s not very critical at first. I’m allowed to use the photo because the person goes out in public and automatically agrees to the production of photographic material. The DSGVO is an extreme hurdle for digital business models. I wouldn’t say that it restricts us. It has certain challenges as to how we have to set up the technology. We are very aware of this. The damage that can be done is enormous. I think that we are well positioned in this respect. But it’s actually very relevant, especially with respect to image products, including what happens if I send the wrong customer someone else’s pictures. You don’t have to rely on the DSGVO to know that this is not good. It just feels wrong.
Bernd Zipper: What are your post-Corona plans?
Patrick Leibold: At the moment we have to deal with the situation that there are still no weddings. We see that they are coming back a bit, the easing in all regions is also noticeable for us. A lot of events are being made up for, a lot is postponed until next year. This means that we are now running at idle speed and have to shift up from zero to 100 at Christmas. Once we have successfully mastered the Christmas season, we will enter the super-super-wedding year. The year 2020 should have been the super-wedding year, if only because of some date constellations. Much is postponed to 2021, so we expect an extremely interesting year for us. Accompanied by many new products that we are launching. There are many interesting things we have to master next year.
Bernd Zipper: Surely, if you have a successful business model in Germany and Austria and a little bit in Switzerland, internationalization should be on the agenda.
Patrick Leibold: We are in France and were able to grow about 150 percent there, ahead of Corona. Even during Corona, we actually managed to keep growing. It’s an extremely interesting market that offers great design inspiration. We are also profiting from this in the German market. The card product is not easily internationalized. For example, we made a failed attempt in the Netherlands, where we discovered that our product is not a product there at all. We have learned that what we do in Germany, Austria or Switzerland cannot simply be applied to another market by translating the website. What I need is a completely new product and that starts with the paper, the layout and the design. In principle I can start from scratch. All I have is a shop system. At the moment that’s not reason enough for us to internationalize. Products like Wall Art or similar are much easier and we will roll them out to other countries relatively quickly with the app. However, we no longer have the advantage of the Kartenmacherei, which has over one million customers a year. This means a new start.
Bernd Zipper: It also means that there can be someone in these countries who will copy you. Since Germany is under observation. What works here and what happens. In this respect you are an incubator for other countries when it comes to business models.
Patrick Leibold: We keep getting inquiries whether we want to cooperate in order to go international with partners. We are not doing that at the moment. As I said, for us the growth focus at the moment is very much around the app and managing growth in Germany, Austria, Switzerland. But the next steps will also be more international, definitely. Whether we then do something ourselves again or whether we do it via acquisition is open. At the moment, we are also thinking about moving a little more into the classic buy-and-build area. That could be one approach to be able to internationalize better with an app.
Bernd Zipper: Everything you do is extremely ambitious. We are sitting here relaxed at the Ammersee, a really beautiful corner of Germany. Now I imagine, with what you have planned, how many hours does Patrick work? How do you manage to implement these plans and this ambitious work and at the same time achieve a good work-life-balance?
Patrick Leibold: Well, on the one hand it helps if you’ve seen a thing or two and know that not everything that happens automatically points to the end of the world. On the other hand, what I said: we have a broad, fantastic, capable management team. We always say that they make 50 or 60 million today, and could make 200 million just as they are, and they want to do so. In other words, a lot of responsibility is delegated and we have a team that is also capable of making its own decisions. None of us is ruining ourselves physically, mentally. We all have ambitious plans, but all because we have an incredible inner drive. In the company, 70 percent of the employees are women, almost 30 percent of all employees have children. We are very family-oriented and that is a great value from which you draw a lot of energy and strength. And I enjoy the two or three hours I had with my son this morning as much as I enjoyed our conversation. Like all the appointments that follow today. I think you can reconcile this very well by not making a strict separation. So I do the things that make sense and are necessary and I give my private life a lot of time.
Bernd Zipper: Does that mean that you manage to combine work and private life properly? So that you don’t have a fundamental dogmatic separation there?
Patrick Leibold: Exactly. That brings with it a certain risk. You have to reflect on how much you work. If you then tend to do more. In a moment I’ll pick up my family and we’ll look at a winter garden. Then I’ll be working again this afternoon. And I make phone calls in the evenings and on weekends, in the same way that I simply go with my family at lunchtime to look at something. I don’t think there’s any reason to distinguish just because somehow there’s a difference between eight and eight. It’s working time and there’s nothing else I can do. I have been working exclusively from home for two or three months. I’ve done it very intensively before and I enjoy the flexibility of being able to take a breath between appointments and play a little football with the kids and then get back into business. It gives you a lot of balance in your head.
Bernd Zipper: That sounds like a new way of thinking about work. What was the most enjoyable thing you did last week?
Patrick Leibold: That was definitely private. Yesterday evening I went with my older son to a reservoir near here and we swung onto the stand-up board and did a lap in the sunset. It’ s great here in the Bavarian foothills of the Alps.
Bernd Zipper: That is cool. Thank you very much for the interview.