Online print has turned the traditional printing industry on its head in a big way, especially in the last 20 years. But its history goes back much further. At the Online Print Symposium 2023 in Munich, Robert Keane, founder and CEO of Cimpress, told the audience exactly how far back – and why radios, a book by Stan Davis and an MIT study on the automotive industry all played a role. As the person who founded the world’s first and now most successful online print company, he also had four important lessons to share that will continue to be important for a successful online print business in the future.
“I was lucky enough to be at the right time, in the right place, and with the right people”: the words Robert Keane chose to start his keynote at the Online Print Symposium 2023 sound modest – but what lies behind them is nothing less than the story of how online print came to be, and therefore undoubtedly a success story. It originated back in the 1980s, long before the Internet was accessible to the general public.
In 1984, Robert Keane was still a student and on the team of the student magazine, which – as was usual at the time – was still being created with scissors, glue, and a lot of chemistry for film and plate production, when Apple introduced PostScript, the Macintosh computer, and software programs that made WYSIWYG possible for the first time. The first PostScript-capable printer, the “LaserWriter,” and Aldus’ Pagemaker software ushered in the age of desktop publishing – and also marked the first step toward online printing. Without these fundamental developments, online printing would probably not exist today. Robert Keane appropriately called this first chapter in the history of online printing “foundational enablers”.
He also included integrated manufacturing, mass customization and lean production – all terms that still play an important role today when it comes to successful business models in online printing. Robert Keane told of his work at a small company that produced customized keyboards for electronic defense systems, which were often ten times more expensive than standard mass-produced goods due to their specialization – and nevertheless achieved insane sales. Keane also took part in a training course on mass customization for Motorola, a major customer at the time. This involved the individual configuration of radios and the associated production in a minimum quantity of one.
Mass customization: already an issue in the 1980s
“The added value for the customer was incredible,” he recalled, referring to a book by Stan Davis in which he described the basic principles of the “economic revolution” as early as 1987: “anytime,” “anywhere,” the “independence between information and physical form,” and – again – “mass customization.” For his employer at the time, the implementation of these principles brought cost savings, improved quality, a smaller footprint, smaller warehouses, happier employees and, of course, more orders as a result of the lower costs. And for Robert Keane, in retrospect, it was clear that a decade later “these paradigms would become major components of Vistaprint’s ‘playbook’ – and they are still part of that ‘playbook’ today.”
The current Cimpress CEO took OPS attendees back to a time when he co-developed and brought to retail the first automated machines for designing and ordering invitations, a time when the PDF format had just been introduced, Agfa was introducing computer-to-plate technology, and Presstek was introducing the first filmless imaging technology for color prints.
The vending machines for invitations and the like failed, but what remained was a certainty: “We developed some really cool technology, but it missed the mark in terms of what customers thought was important,” he summed up at the time. “But I remained convinced that there was a huge need for affordable, fast, high-quality, short-run design and print services.”
Online printing: from hype to “really bad idea”?
In 1994, the business plan for “Bonne Impression” – the first brand of the group that is now Cimpress – was written: “My plan was to solve our customers’ problem by combining desktop publishing software such as Microsoft Publisher, colorful graphic designs and pre-printed card stock, on which the customer then prints their own black and white content, with a desktop laser printer. This was already common in the U.S. at the time and allowed customers to design and print flyers and business cards from their desks.”
By 1998, Bonne Impression had grown to 30 employees. According to Keane, margins were already over 60%, as the product was already being produced using bulk form printing and sold directly to end customers.
It’s exciting and at the same time funny that the online print pioneer – when Amazon.com virtually founded the e-commerce business three years earlier – wasn’t very interested in the Internet at first. Nevertheless, he quickly realized that he needed the Internet to continue to grow and attract investors. In June 1999, VistaPrint 1.0 was launched in the United Kingdom and France. “E-printing,” as it was then called, experienced a huge influx in the wake of the dot.com hype – and an equally big crash in 2000. Only some of the providers survived. At the time, many professionals had agreed that online printing was a “really bad idea”.
A new beginning and a boom in online printing
But this second chapter in the history of online printing was to be followed by others: The “awakening years” up to 2005, when VistaPrint was at the forefront of online print developments. “I think one of the main reasons was that we passionately embraced and implemented the innovations in digitization that were happening in the print industry at the time, with or without us,” he said, describing the spirit of optimism that was evident in the early 2000s, not only among developers such as Apple and Adobe, but throughout the industry.
“VistaPrint was an online printing company, but also much more than that; we saw ourselves as an ‘industry disruptor.’ Our real ‘magic trick’ was standardizing and digitally transforming the design and production process for the customer’s benefit, combining it with e-commerce, digital marketing, lean manufacturing, computer-integrated manufacturing and custom mass production.”
VistaPrint’s IPO in 2005 marked the starting point for the chapter of the “boom years,” in which development knew only one direction, upward. Or in numbers: from sales of $90 million in 2005 to total sales of $2.8 billion in 2019, before the pandemic. Of course, this growth came not only organically, but also through acquisitions. Today, among others, Pixartprinting, Wir-machen-druck.de or drukwerkdeal belong to Cimpress, as the group is now called. In addition, since the early 2000s, companies such as Flyeralarm or Onlineprinters have also been among the leading online print shops, which can already look back on almost or exactly 20 successful years.
The evil online printer?
During the boom years, many traditional print shops regarded online competitors as “destroyers” whose pricing policies were ruining the printing industry. “But I firmly believe that the opposite was true: online printers lowered prices because their costs plummeted. Their costs went down because they embraced the digitization of the graphic arts industry […]. In other words, the online printers did not destroy the printing industry, but showed what the future of the printing industry could look like,” he was and is convinced.
In doing so, he said, the best online printers collectively showed the way to deliver greater value to their customers by transforming design and printing from a handcrafted artisan operation into a highly efficient, workflow-driven industrial process that moves seamlessly from the customer’s browser to production and delivery. In addition, online printers have always worked closely with machine manufacturers, beta testing and providing input on the development of robust, industrialized machines. “All of these innovations have helped the entire printing industry better serve its customers,” said Keane, who at this point segued into the current chapter, “the present.”
In the here and now, all market players have understood the mechanisms behind “e-business print.” Industrialization and automation have long been a lived reality. “The widespread understanding of the possibilities of end-to-end digitization makes this a very exciting time for our industry,” Robert Keane is also suitably confident. “There are still many chapters ahead of us that need to be written”.
Valuable lessons for the future
And to ensure that companies in the online print industry can continue to be successful in the future, Robert Keane also had four important lessons in store that he drew from each of the “chapters”: He emphasized the great importance of family, friends and colleagues in building a successful business, the unrelenting goal of always wanting to serve customers better, all the way to digital, highly automated production and mass customization. More topical than ever was his fourth insight, which describes a formula for success in the future: “The groundbreaking innovations that have brought so much success to online print shops over the decades are far from over, quite the opposite. There are still enormous opportunities ahead. I believe, as obvious and simple as these lessons may sound; they are applicable to anyone who wants to build a great online printing business.”
If you want to learn more about the history of online print – and are curious about the details and anecdotes Robert Keane had to share, just watch his talk again at your leisure:
First Pioneer of Global Online Print
There was also a special highlight after Robert Keane’s keynote address, because as the founder of the first and still the world’s leading online print company, he was presented with the “First Pioneer of Global Online Print” award. The laudatory speech was given by none other than Thorsten Fischer, founder and CEO of Flyeralarm.