Cimpress (more commonly known by its leading business unit, Vistaprint) is, at its core, in the business of customization. The company was founded in the 1990s to help microbusinesses with graphic design and small-batch printing jobs[ii]. Today, through its many web-based merchant sellers, the company offers a vast catalogue of “blank” products – ranging from business cards to Bluetooth speakers – that can be imprinted with a customer’s unique specifications, including typeface, logos, and photos[iii]. Whether you need your company’s logo emblazoned on 1,000 pens, or you simply want a single mug with a goofy family photo, Cimpress can help.
Yet this level of customization introduces a fundamental operational dilemma. Traditionally, custom jobs at a local print shop drive unit costs through the roof, as highly customized, small-batch jobs (in Cimpress’s case, down to the level of a single unique production unit) incur significant setup costs[iv]. Consequently, it’s challenging to offer a product that is simultaneously personal and customized, while also affordable and available in very small quantities.
Cimpress, however, believes it can use digital production technology to do exactly that. It is currently investing significantly in developing its own proprietary “mass customization platform” that aggregates orders across its brands and automatically batches and routes jobs to the manufacturing facility that best optimizes cost with consumers’ requested delivery times and locations. By amassing large numbers of small-batch orders from around the globe into high-volume production, Cimpress is able to reduce setup costs, disrupt the traditional trade-off between volume and unit cost, and make highly customized products available to consumers at prices and speeds comparable to mass production[v]. For instance, while a traditional print shop might require over an hour to set-up, print, cut, and box a standard order of 250 business cards, Cimpress requires only 13 seconds[vi] – and can pass those savings directly to consumers.
To further harness the disruptive scale benefits of digitalization, Cimpress is rapidly acquiring custom printing merchants across the globe and migrating their transactions onto its platform[vii]. For example, over the last few years, Cimpress acquired a series of European “upload and print” businesses, and most recently, National Pen, an American producer of pens, key chains, and other promotional products. Not only will additional brands drive greater scale benefits, but the existence of a common digital platform will enable each acquired brand to rapidly access the product catalogues, production facilities, and cost-effective manufacturing capabilities of the entire Cimpress network[viii]. The focus in the near-term, therefore, is to get these new brands integrated into the platform and rapidly launching new products. In addition, as Cimpress develops the platform, it is also looking for new opportunities to introduce digitization not only into routing, fulfillment, and logistics, but into the image production process– for instance, by writing algorithms that minimize the distance a needle travels while embroidering a logo on a t-shirt or automate re-touching[ix].
In the longer term, once the capabilities of mass customization are proven within Cimpress, CEO Robert Keane has proposed a vision to make Cimpress’s digital platform available not only to Cimpress-owned brands, but to third parties; essentially, he hopes that the technology will eventually become the central link in a vast “Amazon-like” ecosystem of merchants and sellers[x]. Keane wants his business to be not just a printing company, but a technology company that happens to print products – much like Uber is a technology company that happens to be in the taxi business[xi].
Given this, I would challenge Cimpress’s management to think more about what it would mean organizationally for Cimpress to evolve from a web-based printing company into a true “technology” company. If its vision is to provide not just custom-printed mugs, but create an industry-leading technology platform, it will need to be capable of recruiting top tech talent, organizationally linking software developers with the customer-facing business units, developing robust data analytics capabilities to fully leverage learnings from the platform, and importantly, gaining business unit buy-in to pilot new technologies in day-to-day operations.
More broadly, I think this points to an open question around the digitization megatrend: are we shifting from a world of product manufacturers that happen to use technology, to a world of technology companies that happen to make products? And if so, what are the implications for us as both consumers and business leaders?
[i] Bain & Company. “Making It Personal: Rules for Success in Product Customization.” 2013.
[ii] Interview with Robert Keane (Cimpress CEO). CXO Talk. August 28, 2015.
[iv] Interview with Robert Keane.
[v] McKendrick, Joe. “What True Digital Disruption Looks Like.” Forbes. September 25, 2011.
[vii] Cimpress 2017 Investor Presentation.
[viii] Interview with Bernie Gracy (former Cimpress SVP, Global Products): “How Cimpress is Bringing Customized Products to the Masses.” American Printer. January 27, 2016.
[ix] Interview with Maarten Wensveen (Cimpress CTO): “Manufacturing and Microservices.” Software Engineering Daily. June 21, 2016.
[x] Interview with Bernie Gracy.
[xi] Interview with Robert Keane.