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  • 11.18.09

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.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique.

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