Laura Ching swears she was not a bride from hell. Listen to her wedding-invitations story, and it's the retailer who sounds infernal. "It was so antiquated," Ching says of her 2004 trip to a stationery store in San Francisco. After sifting through several encyclopedia-size binders of wedding invitations, she finally flagged down a salesclerk to help her. Ching watched in disbelief as the clerk scribbled down her words, by hand, scrawling annotations on a company form for font size and formatting and text placement. Next, the rep dispatched a copy to a third-party manufacturer -- via fax machine. Then she waited. And waited. "They would fax me back this black-and-white proof," Ching says, "and I'd think, Oh, no, I need something changed."
The frustrating experience inspired a marriage -- of the digital and physical worlds for cards -- and the birth of Tiny Prints, an online stationery company that sells personalized greeting cards and invitations. Ching, a merchandising veteran of Walmart.com, had already been looking for a great startup idea, meeting every Wednesday night with fellow Stanford B-school grads, huddling in a tiny apartment to brainstorm over burritos. Her invitation woe rang true. "I was planning a wedding, [cofounder] Ed [Han] was having a baby, and we were all becoming aunts and uncles," she says. "It really clicked."
Ching set out to build a "white-glove service" that focused on great design and customer service. "What we try to do is make people feel like they're Martha Stewart, without having to do a lot of work," she says. Tiny Prints reviews every order up to three times, touching up any photos, closely examining for mistakes and proper etiquette, and double-checking all dates and spellings. "We want to make a better experience where you'd see a digital proof within hours as opposed to days, and you work with a dedicated designer," Ching says.
But Ching's vision didn't ring the register initially because the price point was too high. By the end of 2004, Tiny Prints had logged just 1,000 orders. "That's when we flipped our business model," she says. She and her team brought printing in-house, aggressively pursued exclusive licenses with high-end designers, and streamlined the supply chain. The moves shaved costs significantly and enabled the startup to control customer service and personalization end to end. Within a year, Ching says, "things really took off." The average customer now spends around $100. Ching has kept up her exclusive licensing strategy, locking down deals with hot print designers such as Elum and Snow & Graham, and she's expanded into birth and bridal announcements, holiday and corporate greetings, and calendars and photo books. Last year, Tiny Prints did roughly $100 million in revenue, and in March, online photo giant Shutterfly announced it would acquire the company and its team in a deal worth $333 million. "We can leverage its platform," Ching says. Ching will run her startup as a separate brand within Shutterfly, but the devoted mother of Nate and Sophie still acknowledges the bittersweetness of change. "This is our baby," she says. "Is it the right time to let go?"