Vistaprint Disrupts a Six-Century-Old Industry

To understand how Vistaprint has become the world’s leading provider of printing services to small businesses, you need a brief overview of the printing industry.

People buy printing services because of price, convenience, and quality. They can easily compare printing companies across these dimensions. And because printing companies depend on the same suppliers for printing technology, they eventually all look the same.

Winning this game has come to depend on scale. He who prints more and can offer a lower price and capture more profit. Other than that, commonly accepted wisdom says there are few opportunities to establish a sustainable edge over others.

It is precisely when industry players and experts have arrived at such a conclusion that innovators can seize the advantage. When your competitors think they have the answers they stop questioning how to do things better. When they settle on “best practices,” when you hear them say “this is the way things are done,” or “it has worked this way for years,” at that moment there may exist an opportunity to disrupt your market by breaking the accepted rules.

As it turns out, Vistaprint’s founder, Robert Keane, was a rule breaker. Keane applied a key strategy to find that unattainable competitive advantage. He refused to believe that printing is mostly a commodity business that one can only win with scale and customer service.  Instead, Keane decided to focus on process innovation.

Coordinate to Rise Above the Competition

At the core of the Vistaprint strategy is a seemingly straightforward process innovation. This innovation broke an accepted rule traditional printers had assumed was insurmountable: the cost of printing the short run jobs that small businesses demanded was too expensive for small businesses to afford.

Since printing economics are high on fixed costs – it costs as much to set up a machine to print 150,000 business cards as it does to print 1,000 – printers would have to charge exorbitant rates to the small businesses that wanted to fulfill small orders.

So Vistaprint changed the process. It built software that only required print jobs to have the same physical format, which means they were the same size and paper type. Then they laid the appropriate individual business designs over a large, table-sized piece of print paper, as if it were one run. By doing this, Vistaprint is able to print a thousand sheets deep, cut them into separate stacks and serve multiple clients at once.

For instance, when Vistaprint runs a business card job, it prints a thousand sheets deep and cuts them into 143 stacks. That allows them to print 143 individual designs 1,000 pages deep. That is equivalent to printing 143,000 business cards in one fell swoop.

This insight derives its power from a natural principle: when you coordinate uncoordinated things they become new, bigger things. When birds fly in formation they become a flock, fish become schools, buffalo become herds. Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can coordinate something that will change the status quo and allow you to work at a higher level.

1.    What is the accepted way of doing things? What are the industry rules?

2.    Are there efficiency gaps in the traditional process?

3.    Is there a new product or service that my company can offer to shake up the market?

4.    Is there a way to use current infrastructure or technology to offer this new service or product?

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2 Comments

  • Scott Mac

    This is garbage
    Vista Print have had a big impact on the print industry yes, but it is not through the simple device of making short run work, work through offset processes that you describe. This multi-up method is not an innovation, it has been a common practice by printers since the early 1980's and the concept of "hub printing" which took this process to it's ultimate efficiency, has been a common business model since the late 1990's. There are 7 such print hubs within 50 miles of me that I know of right now. 

    No, Vista's success is from some other root cause and the author has been conned.  

  • Tom Reid

    I arrived here trying to find out what happened to Vistaprint.
    As of February 14, 2010, the Vistaprint web site is down.
    Consider the avalanche of complaints about unrequested credit card billings. Consider Mr. Krippendorff's own comment "As it turns out, Vistaprint’s founder, Robert Keane, was a rule breaker."
    Perhaps this is another case of "too good to be true".
    Reminds me of the dot.com boom/bust. If the company is gone, I'll bet the founder made it out ahead of everyone else.
    Anyone have any real info?