Innovation moves printer onto Internet
By MICHAEL MILSTEIN
Gazette Wyoming Bureau
Nationwide, printing is a $100-billion-a-year business and the fifth largest employer in the manufacturing industry. So Andrew Field, owner of Express Color Printing in Livingston, was surprised when he started poking around on the Internet and found that no one was offering commercial printing services online.
There were a couple of reasons for that. First, most printing customers like to see mock-ups, or "proofs," of their projects - brochures, business cards, whatever - before they go ahead with the order. Second, there seemed to be no clear and easy way for customers to transmit art or designs over the Internet to a printer.
Recognizing, though, that on the Internet, "if you can get there first, you have a big advantage," Field decided to take a crack at it.
The result is www.printingforless.com, an online offshoot of Field's Livingston printing company that, since its March launch, has drawn customers from 41 states and even the United Kingdom. If Field's online business continues to grow as it has so far, his Web site could bring in $1 million in revenue next year, about equal to the annual revenue from his traditional, bricks-and-mortar printing company.
The colorful and easy-to-navigate Web site is also streamlined and standardized, offering business card, stationary, brochures and other products in certain specific quantities and sizes. Since it is simplified, the prices are generally lower than a customer might receive from a walk-in printing shop - but Field makes it clear that online customers also cannot expect the same personalized attention they would get when dealing face-to-face with his staff.
"It's basically self-serve and you pay up-front, but it's also very easy so people who know what they want can go to the site and get it right there," Field said.
In typical fashion for Internet entrepreneurs, Field overcame the obstacles to online printing with innovation. One of his employees worked out a way to accept graphic designs developed with Microsoft Publisher - the most popular desktop publishing software among small businesses - over the Internet. Once Field's staff has devised a proof of the customer's project, they post the proof on an individual Internet Web page and then e-mail the customer the Web page address. Customers anywhere in the world can then instantly view electronic proofs of their projects.
As soon as customers check over the proofs and give the go-ahead, Field and his employees print the project and ship the products out - usually via United Parcel Service.
While Internet superstores such as Amazon.com are essentially giant conveyors - selling ready-made goods to consumers - Field's online printing shop actually manufactures its goods, meaning that twice as much business takes nearly twice as much work. He now employs 15 people and expects the number to grow as the business does.
Getting the Web site up and running took a lot of work and a lot of money - "it went into six figures," Field said - and even now the site resides on a giant computer server in California that provides much faster access than would be available in Montana. Field's staff retrieves orders from that server over new high-speed DSL lines that only recently became available in Livingston, overcoming the longtime problem of slow Internet access in Livingston.
"Once you have bandwidth (provided by high-speed lines), location is no problem," Field said.
Michael Milstein can be reached at (307) 527-7250 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: Sunday, January 9, 2000
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