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Commentary & Analysis

VistaPrint and the Upload-and-Print Market

Cimpress (parent company of VistaPrint) is expanding into the core of the print market; “upload-and-print”. They are buying demand generators and no doubt investing in user experiences that will enable self-service online purchasing of print for the largest segment of the print industry (manufacturing of the customer’s design/file).

By Jennifer Matt
Published: January 6, 2016

Earlier this week Cary Sherburne published a great interview with Robert Keane, CEO of Cimpress (parent company of VistaPrint). I started to post a comment about this story and when my comment reached 500+ words I decided it might be better suited for a full article. For full context, learn from Cary’s excellent article first or plough ahead for my take on what I see Cimpress doing in the market place.

VistaPrint, to me has been an example of a company applying new technology (the internet) to a legacy market segment (print). Their brilliance was superb timing and expert execution on the strategies behind building “demand” online through search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search for print products that were well-suited for a self-service purchasing workflow (templated products like business cards). They aggregated the demand for print products that virtually every local printer was printing every day, they made the process 100% self-service, then they set the standard for executing on internet marketing to improve their standing in virtually every search engine results page (SERP) related to the products they sell.

VistaPrint is a marketing company that happens to manufacture.

I know their backend automation is impressive but as you can tell in the interview with Robert Keane, he values demand generation way higher than manufacturing – he’s buying successful demand generators in key markets; Exaprint – France and WIRmachenDRUCK – Germany and is just fine with the manufacturing staying with third parties. Notice, in their two largest acquisitions, “$100+ million in revenues “virtually all [production is] outsourced to a network of more than 150 partners”. They are acquiring “print demand generators” that don’t manufacture.

Here’s how I view Cimpress’ strategy, they are dominating and at the same time seeing limited growth in the core products that produce the majority of their revenues (business cards, etc.). They know that “designing yourself online” is a very small fraction of the overall print business – the meat of the print business is customers and businesses that have created their content and need a printer to manufacture it. Cimpress calls this “upload-and-print market”, many of us refer to it as “Ad Hoc Products” which is a workflow most printers are so familiar with, giving it a name can be confusing. A customer sends you a file and wants you to manufacture it, you go back and forth (2.5 – 3 interactions is the norm) on the specifications, you perform pre-press, you go through a proofing cycle, you provide an estimate. This is the “meat” of the print industry and a really inefficient and painful purchasing process on the customer.

This is where Cimpress is heading to disrupt.

This is the part of the industry that everyone who resists e-commerce says won’t move online. Like it or not it’s going online, not because Cimpress wants it to but because customer’s want everything to be easier and everything to be self-service. I can apply for a home mortgage online, yet I can’t currently print a brochure for my company without e-mailing my local printer. Please don’t use the “complex excuse”, the online channel started with the easy stuff (unlimited library of books by Amazon), it’s moving upstream on the complexity scale and print is no exception. I fully expect that companies like Cimpress will invest in the user experiences that enable complex print products to be ordered in a self-service or “technology enabled” fashion.

Imagine if Cimpress can eliminate the need for an estimator (with software), a customer service agent (with software), a pre-press resource (with software), and what I think is the most difficult challenge to solve, the accurate collection of specifications for a one-off print order. Buying print is a collaborative commerce interaction, the customer speaks one language (e.g. thick paper), your manufacturing process speaks another language (140lb index). Today the translation between the customer’s language and the manufacturing language is done manually, inefficiently, by humans.

Customers vaguely understands what they want without knowing much of anything about print manufacturing, in fact customers know less and less about printing at all. How do you execute on that collaborative commerce – the “activity” that happens between your customers, sales representatives, and CSRs today to get from idea to specification that can be accurately manufactured? Nobody has solved this for our industry because solving this challenge would move “print knowledge” from the heads of our staff into software, dramatically changing the customer’s experience for ordering print. Technology is proving some interesting tools for problems like this; learning algorithms could be set to translate “customer print language to manufacturing language” similar to German to French translation.

Many will see this development as a threat, I see it as a requirement to keep print relevant because today print is way too hard to purchase and the customer’s tolerance for a difficult purchasing process is decreasing at an alarming rate. Your site stalls for a few seconds and today’s customers who have an attention span of a gnat are long gone. Why do believe that we can continue to make print buyers interact with us 2-3 times before a print order is ready to place into production? It’s too much overhead, it’s too timely, and it’s a high labor costs on the printer.

It was only a matter of time before VistaPrint expanding beyond the micro-businesses and templated products, they are building a platform – anyone of size in the internet age knows a platform is your only defense against the pace of change. In speaking with a VistaPrint business development executive, my ah-ha moment was that with a global fulfillment platform – a small, creative demand generator could “plug it into their platform” and almost instantaneously build a global business without making a single capital investment. The rules of the game are changing; the value is migrating from manufacturing/capital intensive companies to lean, creative, demand generators. Hang on; it’s going to be a thrilling ride!

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.



By Paul Dombrowski on Jan 06, 2016


Once again, your writing is spot on. Thank you for taking the time.

Can you imagine the data view from the production files driving job production for the demand genators? I visualize the print specifications as "organic material." From a automation standpoint the programmer takes sure-footed baby steps on the path of complexity. Today we organize a magazine, tomorrow we figure out how to do a gatefold insert.... Oh and by the way, look at the demand for that item - let's organize it next. And away we go...

Yes. This will be a thrilling ride!

Paul Dombrowski


By Jennifer Matt on Jan 06, 2016


Machine learning is tackling much more difficult challenges than print specifications today, and its isn't simply the conversion of customer language to manufacturing specifications - it could and will also include the "up-sell and options" that everyone says will never be replaced by software.

Ordering print is a data problem with a defined data set that is tiny compared to the big data challenges in other industries.

The creative challenge will be to put a brilliant user interface over the technology b/c without it, you won't get user adoption. The iPhone is brilliant technology, its success was 100% driven by the fact that the user interface hides 99% of the complexity - making it a device that literally comes without a user manual.



By Slava Apel on Jan 06, 2016

I don’t see VistaPrint as an innovator, but as a great implementer. They have taken the concepts of marketing and have used print as a vehicle to market. Give them any other product: from vitamins to exercise equipment they’ll do just as well. Add marketing to click through rate optimisation and then add lean manufacturing and now you have a formula for success.

The upload and print market as a service to others has been automated by the likes of Mimeo, 4over, BCT, Zoo, ColorCentric, ASAP, RPI just to name a few, and now Vista is buying similar companies outside of North America. By buying existing companies, Cimpress does not have to innovate and just has to dive into a mature upload and print market.


By Chuck Stempler on Jan 07, 2016

Well said and communicated, AND the complexity conundrum is a bit more than you have enumerated. You can apply online for a mortgage but only to a certain point in the process and if it is a "conventional" mortgage - no Jumbos supported. Regarding machine learning, algorithms etc - yes this is all possible but it will also likely require a significant narrowing of the choices and options. Fully automating truly custom products may be too far down the long tail. That said, I agree, may clients may adapt to fewer choices in exchange for convenience. Our strategy is to offer both e commerce and custom manufacturing.


By Tami Marek-Loper on Jan 09, 2016

Great post, Jen. Personally, this makes great sense to me. The craft of printing and the demand for the specialized output we saw years ago is over. When was the last time you talked with a paper sample rep? I just doesn't happen. The amount of proofing that goes on over low-res PDF via email is astounding considering less than a decade ago I had a hard time getting customers to accept an inkjet proof as a contract proof. What this means to me is that the dumbing down of the craft and the move towards more generic methods gives self-service print buying a real-shot for success in the commercial space. I think those who embrace technology and stop over-thinking how "sophisticated our craft is" will be the ones to reap great rewards by jumping into this trend.


By Robert Godwin on Jan 11, 2016

“Why do (we) believe that we can continue to make print buyers interact with us 2-3 times before a print order is ready to place into production? It’s too much overhead, it’s too timely, and it’s a high labor costs on the printer.”
Indeed, the first print products to be “commoditized” in an automated workflow were the marketing materials that needed to be brand compliant. Style guide and business rules managed through controls on a W2P dashboard offer better consistency than rogue buyers could ever deliver (within an organization). And there you go, buyers are no longer a value add in the supply chain. Any office or district manager can design, order and ship brand compliant products as needed.
Print buyers fall into two categories: 1- implementers of creative’s design needs; and, 2- as a functionary of procurement.
1- You have a complex, unique project that needs to be estimated, managed and reviewed throughout production. These types of print jobs will likely only benefit from certain silos of automation (color control, substrate selection, logistics).
2- Commoditized marketing products where form factor has predictable limits is prime for a cost benefit review. What labor/staffing is required to manage it? What investment is necessary to implement? These are things that a procurement professional can analyze and control, and automation has taken hold based on these factors.
In short, the more creative and unique a project is, the less suitable it is for full automation. When the graphic rules are defined by a style guide, the path to automation is being blazed.


By Mark Thompson on Jan 12, 2016

VistaPrint To Disrupt The Upload And Print Market? Unlikely.

Cary Sherburne published a great interview with Robert Keane, CEO of Cimpress (parent company of VistaPrint) last week. The interview highlighted some of the key strategies that Keanne was prepared to reveal and to discuss.

Some of the follow on articles like the one above - as written by others, however, were less impressive as they present the premise that VistaPrint will ultimately dominate the retail upload and print space as they do the retail design online and print space. Perhaps VistaPrint will be a disruptive force in the upload and print market ... but we believe that to be very unlikely given the reasoning offered in several of the follow on articles.

VistaPrint has skillfully leveraged their first mover position in the retail online design print market. They define all of the key elements of every order they take: price points, product designs, paper choices, printing options, finishing options, quantity runs and production times … are all streamed in near seamless alignment through their patented production systems. In the retail design online and print market VistaPrint earns some of the highest per order margins in the global print industry. To date, they are without a meaningful competitor anywhere on the globe.

To assume, as some of the follow on articles do, that the retail upload and print market is as barren of competitors and technologies as the retail online design market was when VistaPrint entered, is naïve, irresponsible and grossly uniformed.

VistaPrint brings no first mover advantage to the retail upload and print space. They enter a market: where the consumer (not the printer) controls all of the elements of every order, where patents have long been in place for required technologies, where well entrenched and sophisticated marketers battle every day for every order, where many of the required site technologies are available for less than $300 a month from more than a dozen SaaS providers like Aleyant – Pressero.

So where’s the disruption opportunity for VistaPrint? Great question. Let’s look a little deeper at some of the content from the follow on articles written about them last week.

One author wrote;

“I can apply for a home mortgage online, yet I can’t currently print a brochure for my company without e-mailing my local printer”.

I could not believe this line when I first saw it. I read it twice. The author is not aware of the thousands of online sources where her brochures can be instantly priced, ordered, proofed and printed within 24 to 48 hours – based on the artwork that she uploads? That cannot be. Please, visit Uprinting.com, PSPrint.com, OvernightPrints.com and the thousands of other sites offering brochure printing … without emailing them ... your local printer ... or anyone else.

The technology to upload and print a brochure without emailing anyone is so ubiquitous at this point that more than a dozen companies offer SaaS websites that do just that … for any printed product imaginable for any printer in the world. There are tens of thousands of these sites for the author to choose from, in the USA alone. I’ll bet that even her local printer has one.

Here’s another line that defies the realities of the retail online upload and print print space:

“I fully expect that companies like Cimpress will invest in the user experiences that enable complex print products to be ordered in a self-service or “technology enabled” fashion".

This done. Many times over. For many print categories and products, Let’s agree that a wine bottle label set, for a high end vintner, fits the description for “complex print products”. The ability to order high end wine labels (newsletters, brochures, plastic cards, banners, business cards and custom guitars) have been excellently “self-serve” for years. Where is it that ordering wine labels from this page falls short for the author: Mavericklabel.com?

From the page linked above, thousands of orders are placed where the buyer selects from exotic materials based on robust examples, adds foil and/or embossing based on the illustrations and descriptions, choose multiple lot pricing and printing based on the online guide for when and how to order using lots by barrel, the simple ability to select any all of these print elements and have a quote instantly appear in your browser? The ability to then select a quantity, upload your artwork, have a proof in 24 hours and labels en-route in 5 days or less. No part of this technology is ripe for disruption in a meaningful way.

One more line, same author ...

“ … Imagine if Cimpress can eliminate the need for an estimator (with software), a customer service agent (with software), a pre-press resource (with software), and what I think is the most difficult challenge to solve, the accurate collection of specifications for a one-off print order".

Cimpress has no need to do these things. They are done. Done well. Cimpress might find it difficult, from a patent perspective, to emulate these things. There is no disruption to cause. These “imaginings” of the author have been in actual, daily, real world use for at least a decade.

Instant online pricing of printed products is a robust, highly perfected and ancient technology at this point. As an example, MaverickLabel.com patented their UberQuoter in 2007. That quoter enables any consumer to simply and quickly get an instant online price for the simplest to the most complex printed products. Standard and completely custom sizes and shapes can be instantly entered and quoted. Standard and custom materials, finishing options, numbering, choice of press type (digital, flexo, offset, etc.). Further, customers upload their artwork and have a proof linked online, emailed or hard copied to them in about 24 hours, or less, from Maverick … and hundreds of other retail online printers everyday.

Finally, VistaPrint is already in the upload and print market. They have been for several years. Noticed any disruptions in the business of the well-entrenched players there?

VistaPrint has done great things by skillfully defining and controlling a multi-billion dollar space. The retail upload and print space is not the retail design online and print space. The retail upload and print market is neither needing another player nor awaiting new technologies, per se. VistaPrint does not enter the market as a first, nor a last mover. The elements of the products, price points, product designs, paper choices, printing options, finishing options, quantity runs and production times are elements that neither they nor any printer can control. Can VistaPrint play in this market? Of course. They do now. Can they disrupt this market using strategies described by some recent articles? Not Likely.

Consolidation and aggregation … multi-purposing of document elements and content across all media and delivery channels … those are different strategies that still remain ripe for the taking ... for the disrupting, by VistaPrint … by all.


By Robert Godwin on Jan 12, 2016

The most disruptive practice that VistaPrint employs is the ubiquitous media campaign in both print and TV.
Only a few players in this space use social media and SEO effectively. No one is spending on media buys on the scale of VistaPrint.
If they can afford to keep it up at this pace, VistaPrint will become a verb for printing much like Xerox became a verb for photocopies.


By Jennifer Matt on Jan 12, 2016

A couple comments and clarifications, I'm assuming you're referring to me as the "follow on authors" as I'm the only one that's written a follow-on article to Cary's. Maybe you're referring to the comments too? It’s OK to name me by name so everyone can reference who you are disagreeing with. I like disagreement and discussion - makes everyone better critical thinkers. Even if you call me “grossly uninformed ;-) We can agree to disagree.

Will Cimpress/VistaPrint dominate the upload and print market?

I re-read my article again and I never used the word “dominate” so I’m not sure how you interpreted my description of VistaPrint entering the upload and print market as assuming they will dominate it? My point was that they were entering this market and BUYING their way in – a very different strategy than how their core business was built. I agree with you, they don’t have first mover advantage; they have “we’re a very big company with lots of resources to deploy and the market pressure to keep growing quarter after quarter advantage.” You could say they are now dominating this market in both Germany and France by buying the largest players in those markets. Sometimes a large check can buy you dominance in a market.

Is the upload and print market barren of solutions and competitors?

I will stand by my premise that this market is ripe for real innovation and I’m not talking about a well-constructed form to fill out your specification and upload your file. We have been tweaking online specification forms for a decade; a better form is not the kind of innovation I’m talking about.

Why is print a separate purchasing process at all? Why isn’t it embedded into the business process that it actually supports? Why do we go outside our CRM to buy marketing materials? Why do we go outside our LMS (learning management system) to buy training materials? Why do we go outside of our HR applications to buy business cards?

I’m talking about the buying process in a whole different way. One comparison that might apply here is the merchant account process – a small business used to have to jump through crazy hoops to accept credit cards, companies like PayPay and Square turned that complicated process on its head and reinvented the space. Now we are texting money to people and paying with our cell phones. I think the purchasing of print manufacturing has to have a similar breakthrough innovation to remain relevant (not a better form, not a better preview, not a better upload experience, but a whole different way of simplifying a complex purchasing process which often requires collaboration with a print expert.

You doubt that printers are still using e-mail to take orders? That’s funny.

Believe it. E-mail is still the #1 way print jobs are communicated between customers and printers today because most of print is B2B and we are an industry of a lot of small / medium companies. Those printers who have web-to-print solutions are implementing them for only a select portion of their customers via private portals. My company implements web-to-print system and Print MIS systems, one of the things we always track in the MIS metrics is % of online orders, its low (across the board) at the traditional commercial printer.

I want more than anyone for all of them to enable online ordering, that’s what I’ve been writing and speaking about for too many years. I know you’re shocked but no, my local printer does not deploy a web-to-print for infrequent customers like me. Yes, a lot of printers have bought web-to-print solutions but they are implemented for a very small fraction of their customers (typically just their largest customers). The infrequent customer is still e-mailing and calling for status, even for re-orders.

One statement that you made that I can’t leave alone:

“The upload and print market is neither needing another player or awaiting new technologies.”

I couldn’t disagree more. We’re in a market driven economy, every market of any significant size is going to be disrupted by exponential technologies in the very near future by innovative competitors. Although the print industry is in an overall decline globally (limits some of the VC money coming into the space), it is still one of the largest markets in the world. We need disruption, we need new technologies, what seems impossible today is within reach tomorrow.

Thanks for the lively discussion.



By David Hultin on Jan 13, 2016

There's a book I recently read which references a quote in *another* book (Something Really New: Three Simple Steps to Creating Truly Innovate Product). Here's the quote:

> First, ... understand the reason people use a product or service. Next, lay out the steps the customer must take to get the job done. Finally, once the series of tasks from intervention to outcome is understood, simply start removing steps until you reach the simplest possible process.

The (original) book I referenced is all about building habit-forming products. From our perspective (printers' perspectives) building the habit of ordering online ... not just once, but coming back to order over and over again ... is a pretty good habit to cultivate!

So, VistaPrint is now at the point where they're removing steps (from the print buyers' perspectives) from the process of upload-and-print. If the upload-and-print bar hasn't already been raised, it will be soon.


By Jennifer Matt on Jan 13, 2016


Such a great comment.

Buying print is seen as so complicated INWK (a large public company) was built simply to remove the complexity of buying print from corporate customers for a fee.

Technology is the tool that everyone is looking towards to "remove steps" in virtually every business process that is large enough to warrant disruption.



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