The instantprint Journey
You’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of instantprint, congratulations! Can you take us back to the beginning in your 2009 college dorm rooms?
Back in 2009, while we were supposed to be focused on our finals, Adam and I were busy buying up domains, setting up bank accounts and researching web developers. We’d spent our college years running around trying to promote nightclub events and were convinced that we could make the print buying part of it easier.
Our aim was largely born out of our experiences of buying print for the events we were running. If we needed flyers or posters, it would involve contacting a graphic designer and agreeing on the proofs by email. Then, we’d have to contact the local printers to try and negotiate a price and turnaround time. To top it off, we’d end up confusing ourselves over paper types and having to tackle the challenges of artwork that didn’t have bleed – or some other jargon we didn’t understand.
Our initial proposition was simple, perhaps less refined than what it is now but essentially the same. We wanted to make it as simple as possible for a small business to buy print.
In July 2009, we moved into a tiny first-floor office in the north of England above a car showroom, with a start-up investment of $6.5K each to purchase equipment – so, it’s fair to say the equipment we were running back then wasn’t state of the art. From there, we’ve grown into a business with over 350 employees working in a 100,000 sq ft production facility in Rotherham, England.
How have you achieved such great success in the UK?
We wanted to make it as simple as possible for small businesses to buy print. This meant simple paper choices, quick turnaround, and competitive pricing. We tried to simplify all of the steps – for example, where most printers would ask you what paper thickness and brand you would like, we offer three stocks for each product labeled as they would be in a grocery store: value, standard, and premium. While the industry standard was a week-long turnaround, we offered to dispatch within 24 hours.
We have processes and systems in place to enable us to measure performance. This has been important because it allows us to recognize when things are changing in the business and to make decisions quickly.
We’re also very lucky to have a passionate, hardworking team. You hear it over and over again that a business’s team are its most important asset and our focus is finding people with the right attitude and behaviors and then empowering the team to make decisions and take action where they feel appropriate. This is what has really helped the business to grow.
What 3 tips would you give to current college students who want to create a startup?
1. Be careful who you take advice from – lots of people will have an opinion on why you can’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t do something. Use your judgment on who to listen to.
A few months after Adam and I set up, we were at a local print shop who were helping us out with something – the owner was surprised at our age and when we told him we’d just graduated and decided to set up a business in print he proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes trying to warn us away from the industry. He said there wasn’t any money left, times were impossible etc. Ten years on, we’re still here and have grown to a team of 350+, very glad not to have taken his advice.
2. When you start up, focus on getting a revenue stream as quickly as possible. We’ve seen a lot of businesses who waste a huge amount of time preparing to launch, trying to get everything perfect before they sell any product. In reality, what happens is as soon as you start selling, you start getting customer feedback and your idea of perfect is changed by this; you start to understand what is really important to customers and you can focus on this. Nothing drives your business forward like listening to your customers (the 95% not the 5%). When we set up, we were focused on fast turnaround stationery, having seen a competitor do well in this space. Our customers were actually most interested in fast turnaround marketing materials such as leaflets and posters. Changing our focus at this early stage was one of the best decisions we made.
3. Know your numbers. In the early days particularly, many start-ups will end up working long hours and forgetting what a weekend is. It’s critical that you’re working cleverly at these stages – not just hard. If you’re not careful, you can become busy fools.
From very early on with our business, we ran weekly figures, pulling out key KPIs such as new customers, sales, margin, quality, and on-time delivery. These figures have been instrumental in not only recognizing when things aren’t going to plan but also in recognizing when things are flying and we need to invest or hire. Having good, robust figures gives you the confidence to make good decisions quickly.
On Going global
How do you tweak your strategy for new markets?
Like the UK, the US has an incredible roster of small business owners, who are all passionate about growing. So, our proposition largely stays the same – helping small businesses grow with print by making the buying experience as simple as possible. We have adapted our products to cater to the US market, creating new sizes and paper stocks.
The online print industry is very competitive in the US, so we’re always looking for ways to cater to our US customers. As this is a new market for us, we’re staying focused on generating as much brand awareness as possible so lots of US small businesses can get to know instantprint, and all the great things we offer.
What has been the most surprising thing about starting a business in the US?
Seeing products getting dispatched and the customers receiving their order in just 2 days is incredible.
There are a lot of different sectors in the UK that don’t exist on a large scale like they do in the US, from pool businesses through to summer camps. This huge variety means we have to be clever with what stock and print options we offer to suit this multitude of small businesses. We’re also adding new free design templates every day to each of our products to ensure we’re meeting the needs of each of these different types of businesses.
We were also (happily) surprised at how we were able to maintain our speedy delivery thanks to our nimble turnaround processes and good relationships with our courier to ensure our US customers get their order as soon as possible.
What are you noticing about the US consumer?
What we are noticing is just how passionate business owners are in the US. They have great attention to detail to make sure their print is perfect every time. There is such a variety of businesses that are using print to market their business; from banks to churches, we’re seeing every type of business ordering print.
How do you approach localization?
During the early stages of launch, we were focused on the east coast states, but since then we have expanded to cover the entire US. At first, we ran state-specific advertisements but, as we are growing, we’re starting to run campaigns/advertising that are streamlined across the US to maintain brand consistency.
Do you feel like you are perceived differently in the US to how you are in the UK?
Although we have only recently launched in the US, the positive feedback we’re receiving from customers suggests we are perceived similarly to the UK market. Just like the UK, US customers want an easy way to buy fast turnaround, competitively priced print and our USPs align well with this.
How do you maintain brand authenticity?
We use the same in-house creative/copywriting team which allows us to maintain the same brand authenticity, whilst adapting the style of content to meet the US customer.
Have you faced any cultural stumbling blocks?
We’re learning every day about the US language nuances compared to UK English; from color to color and translating imperial into metric – there are a lot of little differences we need to be mindful of!
Working across different time zones has certainly been a new learning experience that we’ve not had previously. When you have meetings with potential partners in CDT, but you’re talking to FedEx about an order in EST – all while being in the UK, keeping track of time can become a little complex!
What are 3 surprising things about us customers?
- The variety of artwork we receive – it’s clear there are amazing businesses creating incredible pieces of artwork to send to print, making their businesses stand out with print.
- US customers love the British accent. We have an amazing customer service team which is dedicated to serving our US customers. When we answer the phone, many customers comment on how amazing our accents are!
- Our US customers love to pick up the phone and have a conversation. They like to talk things through with our dedicated Customer Service team, whether it’s about their orders, any of our templates or even how we can introduce products to help their business. They’re really not afraid about asking for something when it’s not currently available – which we really love. It helps us grow as a business in the US too, so we certainly learn a lot from each other.