On his 31st birthday recently, Richard Moross arrived at the offices of Moo Print, the company he found-ed, to find all 34 staff dressed in his signature uniform of black jacket and shirt, blue jeans and white shoes.
It was a fitting tribute to a man who has become a bit of a cult fig–ure in London’s technology start-up circles. Moo makes customised business cards, often using photographs pulled in from community sites such as Facebook and Flickr. After a rocky start, they have become the calling card of the web 2.0 generation, and Moo has done its best to encourage their ex-change with a notorious summer party. But Mr Moross has also act-ed as a mentor to many of the young companies that pass around his cards, which cost £10 for 100.
“I get hundreds of e-mails from people who want help or advice,” he says. “I certainly enjoy, and think my colleagues enjoy, being a citizen of the London tech and start-up community. We have tried to be a good friend of any business, whether that’s making a product that suits them, or being a re-source they can call up.”
Not for nothing has Moo’s Old Street location been dubbed “Silicon Roundabout”; it is also a hub for web companies such as Dopplr, a travel community, and Last.fm, the music service.
Yet Moo’s multimillion-pound business, while relying on technology, is more traditional than many other local dotcoms. As Mr Moross points out, the Old Street area was once the heart of London’s printing trade. “The business card is 300 years old,” he says. “It has not been displaced by mobiles, the internet or Bluetooth – it’s here bec–ause it really works. It’s the most successful networking tool ever.”
Moo’s first product was its eyecatching MiniCard – the width of a standard business card, but half as high. “The one word at the heart of our [marketing] strategy was ‘re-markable’,” he says. “It basically means ‘make stuff that is worth talking about, make sure it is noteworthy’. We are making a product that you buy to hand out, so the business is very viral.”
But that must be coupled with a focus on customer need to avoid becoming a mere novelty, he says. Design and attention to detail are crucial to Moo’s appeal.
The unique shape of the MiniCard is also smart from a business perspective. While Moo uses standard HP printers, its innovation is in creating new printing processes and workflow. “When I [first] took them to have them printed, I realised there was an optimum size as far as gross margin was concerned to the area on which we print,” Mr Moross says. “Sticking to this size and knowing that competitors . . . would have to vary their size in order to not infringe copyright and design registrations, it would be very difficult for them to replicate the economics of our business.”
Since then, Moo has diversified into greetings cards and stickers. Last year, it released a business card of more conventional dimensions, but that too had to be “remarkable”, he says. “When we decided to launch business cards, we were aware that it is a commodity product – we had to inject as much fun and design [as possible] to make it less commoditised.”
Mr Moross set out to emulate the design-led ethos of Apple, he says. And when it comes to ambitions and taking on the industry leader, Vistaprint, he hopes Moo could be “Apple to their PC”.
“We are hoping to consolidate our position as number two in the next couple of years,” he says. “It is a very fragmented market.”
Moo declines to give detailed financials, saying only that it has printed more than 10m miniCards, tripling its revenues every year since launch in 2006. It plans to do so again this year.
“I fully believe they will be profitable without raising more money,” says Neil Rimer, a board member and partner at Moo investor Index Ventures. “They don’t have real estate on Bond Street and tonnes of inventory sitting around that they may not sell. They make stuff on demand [and] squeeze as much sellable product out of every square metre of paper that they buy. ”
Indeed, while many of its fans in dotcom land have had to retrench as advertising and funding dwindles, Moo is growing. As well as continuing to hire staff in London, it is opening its first overseas office, in Rhode Island, to lower delivery times and costs in the US.
The future did not look so bright at the outset. “This company nearly died in late 2005,” says Mr Moross. Before it became Moo, the company tried to combine business cards with a standalone social networking site. “People loved the cards, they just hated the software part,” he says. “They wanted to stay in their own communities.”
The site for Pleasurecards – “A little part of me dies every time I say that word” – was designed by Mr Moross but coded by contractors, which he says limited his ability to change the business.
By December 2005, the business had less than £25,000 left, having made around £5,000. “I stopped drawing a salary,” says Mr Moross, who had also persuaded Stefan Magdalinski, chief technical of-ficer, to join and work for free.
Encouraged by existing backers Index Ventures and The Accelerator Group, the pair went to the Etech conference in San Diego the next March, financed by “my Visa and my family”. There they met Flickr and shortly afterwards secured the backing of Atlas Ventures, a London-based VC. Moo has now raised a total of £5.5m.
“Every company should go through that at some point,” says Mr Moross. “It’s an incredibly valuable experience. All the intellectual property in the business that was created then – the patents, trademarks, the same box mould and packaging design – we are still using now.”
Moo’s priority in 2009 is to move out of the geek niche and into the mainstream. Its cards are becoming popular with designers and architects. “Our next market is easily 10 times as big” as the dotcom crowd, says Mr Moross. Ap-pealing to them means taking many of the hallmarks of web 2.0 – such as drag and drop interfaces and Flickr integration – and making them easy for non-techies too.
The downturn is bringing new customers too, and not just in the number of cards containing the optimistic job title “consultant”.
“We are seeing an extraordinary number of customers coming to us who have lost their jobs, turning their hobbies into businesses,” says Mr Moross. “For people trying to manage their costs and stand out in this market, they need to be remembered and make an impact.”
A working day: new ideas, tweets and cake from the Moo Crew
6am: Check sales figures and stats – half our customers are in the US, so plenty of activity overnight. Go for a run. 8am: Americano (two shots) and cereal at Moo Studios. Dip into RSS feeds: tech and business blogs, and news. Then inbox triage and critical quick tasks. 9.30am: Second coffee. Catch up with folks as they arrive. Once a week I send a CEO MoosLetterto the whole company. Noon: Check what customers are saying about Moo on Twitter, Technorati, Friend Feed and our customer services e-mails. 12.30pm: Once a week, all 35 of us have a meeting and team lunch catered by a local restaurant. 2pm: Discuss design of new packaging idea with colleagues. 3pm: iChat video conference call with US office to discuss progress. 3.30pm: Meet our chairman, Robin [Klein, of The Accelerator Group] to discuss upcoming board meeting, strategy, progress. 4.30pm: Eat some cake one of the Moo Crew has baked (this happens every week). Check RSS, Twitter. Then twitter what I’m listening to on Spotify; no replies. 5pm: CEO-led project work, then try to clear e-mail inbox. Check sales figures and stats before heading off – I’m out almost every evening at something work-related. 10pm: Taxi home, calls to friends and family. Check stats on iPhone. 10.30pm: Watch news with laptop open, and go to bed at 11.30pm.