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Casting a Wide Net

The dotcom bubble might have burst, but UK printers still stand to gain much from the Internet, as long as they find their niche.

By Jim Larkin
Printing World   05/14/2001
Copyright 2001 Miller Freeman Publications

The fact that customers in the UK are now buying print from a web- savvy printer in the US indicates that it is possible to do bold things with both the Internet and a little imagination.
When the dotcom bubble burst last year, there must have been hundreds of printers who took it as proof of what they knew all along. Namely, that print is a people business and you simply cannot buy the stuff over the Net.
But not so fast. This is like saying the Wright Brothers' bumpy landing proved that flight is not a valid method of transport. As the US writer William Burroughs said of new technology: "People tend to overestimate the pace of change but underestimate its impact."
Sooner or later, the chances are you will have to find a way of taking orders over the Internet. But the thing to remember is that like the printing industry as a whole, the secret to gaining orders lies in finding a niche.
And if you can do this online, then you can benefit from the Internet right now. One of the best examples of this you will be able to find anywhere in the world lies in the US, which usually tends to lead this country in the take up of new technology.

The Montana Connection
In 1996, Andrew Field set up a commercial printing company like any other called Express Color Printing in Livingston, Montana. Livingston is a small town lying on the banks of the Yellowstone River, and although you would expect Internet breakthroughs to come from Silicone Valley, it was in the heart of Yellowstone Country where Mr Field was to engineer what he now believes is the most popular print e-commerce venture in the US.
He did not sign up the company to one of the many reverse auction sites that now find themselves floundering, nor did he simply have a website designed that advertised the company's services with a contact number included should anyone want to get on with the serious business of print buying.
Rather, he listened to what his customers wanted and decided there was a huge untapped market of potential customers requiring professional four-colour print jobs but who did not have the sophisticated design capabilities of Quark XPress, InDesign or even PageMaker.
Professional designers will blanch when you say it, but the truth is that thousands of companies use programs like Microsoft Publisher on their (gulp) PCs, and it was these people as much as the Quark users that Mr Field tailored his services to meet.
Which, when you think about it, makes sense. In an industry in which many printers complain their customers lack the expertise to send even a PDF file correctly, big bucks lie not in complicating the buying process but by simplifying things.

Macintosh-based industry
"Commercial printing has traditionally been a Macintosh-based industry," says Mr Field. "At Express Color Printing - as in all commercial print shops - the software we use is typically Quark and PageMaker. We print a lot of magazines and glossy catalogues for prestigious clients.
"Our direct customers are usually ad agencies or graphic designers, so we deal with professional designers who tend to use Macintosh software."
So realising the merits of PCs made the company pretty rare in the area. Microsoft Publisher, after all, was designed for desktop printers and was notoriously difficult to convert for four-colour printing.
But Mr Field saw this as an opportunity. He says: "There are a lot of negative perceptions in the industry about Publisher and PCs in general - that's the reason I did this. Sure, there are other printers who think Publisher is rinky-dink, but I'm taking advantage of their prejudices.
"Publisher allows business people without an art background to get nice-looking pieces. When you see their designs, you'd often be surprised that their materials aren't created by professionals.
"From time to time, small business owners would come to us with a print job they had designed using early versions of Publisher. This person may have spent weeks or months putting together materials. They would come in and be bummed to find out that most printers wouldn't accept Publisher files.

Put Up a Fight
"One day, about two years ago, this one customer put up a fight. He'd put a lot of work into designing a catalogue for his business using an older version of Publisher. But after all that work, no four- colour printer would print it. He was desperate.
"So he came to us and we took on the challenge. We decided to overcome the technical hurdles of printing from his old Publisher file and in the end we gave him a beautiful, top-notch, four-colour catalogue.
"I saw that there were millions of registered Publisher users - and I knew there would be a demand for a printer that could handle Publisher files."
And then a light bulb above his head switched on and he decided to set up PrintingForLess.com, which would offer four-colour printing over the Internet to people who cannot afford professional designers.

Bread Winner
Of course, Quark or InDesign files (or for that matter other software packages such as, PageMaker, CorelDraw, Illustrator, Photoshop, Freehand, Word, PowerPoint or any PDF file) would be accepted too, but Publisher would prove to be a real bread winner, with over a third of all jobs now arriving as Publisher files.
It was launched in March, 1999, and since then PrintingForLess has become an online printing company with sales in the millions of dollars. It recently attracted venture capital funding and currently receives 25,000 hits a week.
Importantly, there is nothing particularly clever about the site itself. The user first selects the type of job he wants printed, and these have been predefined as a variety of sizes within several common types, such as brochures, stationery, catalogues or business cards.
Jobs outside these parameters can also be accommodated in the custom pieces section. The user keys in the quantity and chooses a paper stock from a range of four grades and a price is automatically calculated. Proofs arrive within two days and the job should arrive five days after they have been given the all-clear by the customer.

Major Hurdle
Proofing is often described as a major hurdle to buying print online, but at PrintingFor Less.com this is largely handled digitally, with the user given the opportunity to request a proof as either a PDF file or a JPeg via the Internet.
Customers are also given the option of a press-match proof produced using film, but with starting prices at $200 this is not particularly popular.
The company makes it very clear that there is no guarantee it will match what the customer sees on their monitor or on a print-out the customer has. As explained on the site: "This is due in part to the widely varying results from different inkjet and laser printers, continuous tone proofing devices, high resolution film-based proofs and different than true offset lithography.

Significant differences
"Even from one commercial printing firm to another, there can be significant differences in results... Bottom line: the final product we produced for you is unlikely to match the output from your inkjet - it will look more professional."
When it comes to file transfer, this is handled online or offline, at the customer's preference. Files may be uploaded online, or sent in on a CD, Zip or Jaz disk. Once the job has arrived, the website is used to track orders and to display proofs.
OK, so you have probably gathered by now that this is not a website that attracts much work from the fine art print market, but nevertheless it is a site where simple has proved most effective.
"PrintingForLess.com was one of the first e-commerce printing sites to offer real-time instant pricing, file uploading, automated payment and online proofing," says Mr Field.
"And we cut costs further by eliminating mobile sales people and by conducting all transactions online. That way, our customers walk away with significant savings."
But the real key lies not in the website itself, but what the company does with the information that cannot be achieved by its rivals - in this case handling Publisher files.
It started off by taking RGB profiles and converting them to CMYK, but the latest versions of the software support for four-colour printing is inbuilt.
Mr Field says: "People like this product. They like using it. It's empowering the regular guy. I like that. When I listen to the enthusiastic responses of our customers, I know we're riding on a raging rapid.
"Desktop publishing may have revolutionised the printing business but it didn't do much for the pocketbooks of small business owners, who typically have to shell out big bucks to have their brochures designed by specialists on elaborate software programs.
"I put the business on the Internet because that's where the customers are. I did a publisher job the other day for a guy in Scotland. He couldn't find anyone in Europe to print it for him."
So as with any successful website, the secret lies as much in the service being offered as in the fact it was bought online. One man that played a key role in making the website a success was Boyd Badten, a prepress technician at PrintingFor Less.com.
He says: "I'm a prepress professional, not a designer. I get the files someone else has created and it's my job to find the problems in the files, because those things can torpedo a job.
"Professional designers like to think that Quark and PageMaker are better, but the fact is we receive few errors and have as few problems with Publisher as with any other program.

Tricky Process
"At first I wasn't sure how accurate the RGB to CMYK separations would be. But I've been very happy with them. There are lots of different algorithms used in the industry to translate RGB to CMYK and if the software isn't good it can be ugly - you get muddy colours. It's a tricky process but Publisher is doing a great job."
But the fact PrintingFor Less.com is using Publisher is almost incidental to the lessons that can be learnt from its success. What it has done is simply to identify a market to which the Internet lends itself very easily.
In this case, the benefits are that it can very cheaply attract customers from all over the world whose needs are not confined by the limitations of the Internet.
These are not customers who need to visit the printing company in order to "build a relationship" with the management team.
Rather, they simply want a few hundred or thousand pieces of a printed product that looks better than the result they would get from their desktop printer or local copy shop.
And unless you are De La Rue or St Ives, the chances are you probably have customers like this too.