Four-and-a-half-feet wide seemed so much smaller a few hours ago when I created a poster on Zazzle.com using a photo taken by my friend Jenny. I wasn't thinking just how big it would look as it rolled off the printer in the company's San Jose facility. So far I've seen Zazzle produce my T-shirts, embroidered jacket, and skateboard before my eyes. It feels like shopping — and that's exactly the point. "Anything you can imagine buying in a mall, Zazzle wants to enable through customization," says chief product officer Jeff Beaver.
Since 2005, Zazzle has used sophisticated printing techniques and shrewd partnerships to create a business that sees 200,000 new items designed on its site daily and that analysts expect will generate more than $100 million in revenue this year. Is the future of retail custom? "God, I hope so," Beaver says, laughing. Here's how Zazzle does it.
Zazzle's software allows it to add new product types with minimal disruptions, and more than 95% of its daily average of 100,000 products are processed in less than 24 hours. "If we push the gas pedal, we can go from order to finished product in 17 minutes," says operations chief Charles Ohiaeri.
- Custom Keds
A 2008 deal with Keds gives shoppers the chance to design each individual panel of the shoe as well as the insole. Zazzle integrated both software and hardware into Keds's factory in China. "We wanted to give customers a blank canvas to express their creativity," says Keds president Kristin Kohler Burrows.
"The competitive mentality is, If I help somebody else, that's going to take dollars out of my pocket," says CEO Robert Beaver. "But that isn't the way our sellers are thinking. More sellers enhance the overall quality of the marketplace."
"We've created tools to give sellers full control over the look and feel of their store," says CTO Bobby Beaver. Even royalty rates are customizable. Jennifer Cambray started selling business-card designs on Zazzle during her maternity leave, but as she began to make as much as $10,000 a month, she realized, "There was no reason to go back to work."
This curated online community, formed in 2008 by former pro skateboarder Andy Howell, showcases the craft of both emerging and established artists — and works with Zazzle to turn their creations into products.
- Idea Incubator
AP Labz is Zazzle's R&D division. Artists experiment with cutting-edge options, such as using raised ink and foil to print designs on T-shirts, before Zazzle makes them available to all sellers.
Shepard Fairey (the guy behind the Obama "Hope" portrait) works with Zazzle to offer skateboards featuring his iconic images. Others, such as rapper Lil Jon, Johnny Knoxville and the Jackass gang, and artist Dalek, have also contributed designs.
- Idea Incubator
"We're taking the retail chain and turning it into a software platform," says Jeff Beaver. Every aspect of production of Zazzle's 33 different product types — from manufacturing to quality control to the user experience — runs on the same code and allows everyone a shared window into the process. Designers, Zazzle staff, and customers all see realistic representations of each product, helping Zazzle keep its return rate below 1%.
- Licensed Products
Disney was the first major brand on Zazzle, but hundreds have followed, including LucasArts, Mattel, and Getty Images. "Brands like Disney learned early on that this wasn't about posting your 10 most popular designs — that's retail," says Jeff Beaver. "Unlock everything."
- Trend Indicator
Disney starts merchandising its movies on Zazzle three to six months before they debut. With Pixar's Cars, products featuring the tow-truck character, Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), outsold all others. Disney then upped its supply of Mater products for traditional retail outlets. And when the producers of the early 2000s cult sci-fi show Farscape got wind of rights-infringing fan art (which Zazzle removed), they partnered to sell a special-edition T-shirt for three days, selling thousands.
Zazzle has also become a go-to merchandising arm for special promotions. "By integrating Zazzle into our Web stores, customers can order fan gear along with their DVDs," says Christine Wacker, marketing manager for Discovery's commerce division. In addition, ad agencies have tapped Zazzle to offer customizable products based on campaigns, such as BBDO's Become an M&M work for Mars.
- Licensed Products
A version of this article appeared in the October 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.