From The Guardian, July 5th 2007
The Missing Link Between The Web And The World
On-demand printing provides an analogue product that originates in the digital world
- Glyn Moody
- The Guardian
- Thursday July 5 2007
Social networking may be all the web 2.0 rage at the moment, but sometimes you need a simple physical piece of paper to give your details to someone in person. Business people have the business card, but if you don’t have access to a corporate stationery department, what do you do?
Web 2.0 users have the Moo card: a modest sliver of paper, less than half the height of a conventional business card, and refreshingly cheap. On one side, an image taken from your Flickr stream, or a shot of your Second Life or Habbo avatar; on the other, a minimalist six lines to convey your essential personal coordinates.
There’s something ironic about the rise of the analogue as the acme of digital cool. As Richard Moross, the twentysomething who came up with Moo.com’s re-invention of the calling card, points out: “It’s 300 years old; and despite wireless and Bluetooth and mobile phones, it’s still here, because it’s the single most successful networking tool of all time.”
Moross first hit upon the idea of what he originally called a “PleasureCard”: a business card for the rest of us. “I thought, God, it’s wasted on business people. It’s just as applicable in the social sphere, and kids don’t have it – they’re still writing their bloody numbers down on a piece of paper when they meet people.”
Originally, Moross explains, “the card came with a website that you could store information on”. But it soon became apparent that while “people bloody loved the cards, they hated our software, because it sucked”. Moross also realised that the cards could be made more personal.
Making Flickr images a key element of the design process had another advantage: it enabled Moo.com to employ techniques like “the rolling photostream and the drag-and-drop Ajaxy stuff” that Flickr users were already familiar with. This meant not only that users could personalise their images by cropping and aligning them, but also that they could create a different image for every single Moo card. Such customisation was possible because of the printing technology Moross chose: Hewlett Packard’s Indigo digital press – “basically a large photocopier”.
It was the Indigo’s paper size that led to the Moo card’s distinctive long, thin shape. “I took the traditional business card shape,” Moross explains, “and I wrote my name, my email address and my website on it, and there was a hell of a lot of white space left. So I started paginating it on to sheets of paper and found that if we made [the cards] a very specific size, they would be the most efficient particular dimensions for that sheet.”
Despite Moo’s use of the latest web techniques, Moross says: “I don’t think of us as an internet company. We happen to sell by the internet, and our technology is enabled by relationships with communities like Flickr. But I’m extremely proud of being a printing business.” Moross hopes to open Moo.com’s system so that others can use it: “We become the technology business that sits in between one, but potentially any, Indigo printer and one, but potentially any, other business that’s interested in producing print.”
Moo.com is not the only startup that acts as an interface between the digital and analogue worlds. Others include CafePress, Qoop, Threadless and Zazzle, which produce a range of cards, cups, ties and T-shirts between them. But perhaps the company whose vision of turning digital content into analogue objects most closely matches that of Moo is Lulu.com. And yet their respective founders could hardly be more different.
Bob Young is a seasoned entrepreneur, co-founder of one of the first and most successful open source companies, Red Hat. And unlike Moross, Young sees his latest venture as very much an internet enterprise. “The internet is still very young, still very entrepreneurial,” he says. “I had to find an opportunity, something that wasn’t being served by this brilliant new medium.” Young located it in the world of book publishing.
“Most authors get rejection slips when they try and publish their books,” he says. “The magic of the internet is that it connects everyone on the planet to everyone else on the planet: why do you have to have the small cadre of editors as gatekeepers between the authors and their audiences? Why can’t the authors bring their works directly to the marketplace?” Young decided to enter the on-demand printing business, letting people upload text as digital files that Lulu.com would then print, bind and despatch.
Modern printing technology made that possible, but what it was “capable of doing, and what it was actually being set up to do, are two quite different things”, Young emphasises. “Once you’d set up a full production set of the print engine, the binder, the gluer and then the trimmer into a manufacturing capability, it’s most of $1m (£500,000).
“You’ve got to pump at least 30,000 books through it every month just to pay the lease costs. Everyone understood this, but they didn’t realise that it wasn’t a question of 30,000 of the same book, or six runs of 5,000 books: it could be 30,000 completely different books, one at a time.” Lulu’s average print run for a book is “less than two”.
Moo and Lulu may share the vision of bringing extreme web 2.0 customisation to the analogue world, but the way they deliver it is quite different. Moross is based in London, a stone’s throw from his printer and from the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant sorting office, which sends his products around the world. “I think the smartest thing is to stay in London and sit on top of our printer,” he says.
Young, by contrast, believes outsourcing has big benefits for larger print items. “We have two [printers] in the United States, one in Spain and one in England. We hope to have one in Japan and one in Australia. The attraction is, if you’re a global corporation and you’re trying to sell or distribute, say, technical manuals around the world, you no longer have to ship dead trees from London to Australia, or London to Malaysia, or even from London to Spain. Your customers would order up the book and the book would be printed in Spain and delivered to southern European markets.”
Outsourcing is important, Young believes, because it will allow him to expand his business. “We are printing about 200,000 books a month,” he says, “and that number is growing about 10% a month. Books by itself could be a $1bn business once we get this service scaled globally.”
And where Moross hopes to revolutionise on-demand printing, Young wants to do the same for on-demand publishing: “We think of books simply being the first of our product lines.” Lulu.com already offers its services for music CDs, DVDs, calendars and artwork. The interface between the web and the real world is alive and well and making money.