Commentary & Analysis
All Projects Great and Small: Benicia, Calif.’s ColorZone Helps Small Businesses Grow
When Joshua Feller bought a failing trade show graphics company in 2005, he had little idea that it was the start of a journey that would take him into the world of wide-format printing—and the burgeoning world of digital label printing.
By Richard Romano
Published: October 18, 2016
Benicia, Calif., is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, just north of Sulsun Bay on I-680. Nestled between Silicon Valley and Napa Valley, it’s a prime location for a graphics company serving both the high-tech firms to the south as well as the panoply of wineries and other craft businesses to the north.
ColorZone was originally founded in 1997 as a color copy shop at a time when digital color printing and imaging were still in their infancy. By the end of the decade, the proliferation of desktop and network color printers decreased demand for outsourced color graphics, so ColorZone went in a new direction: trade show graphics, printing, laminating, and buying frames for pop-up trade show booths. This was the height of the dot-com era and a golden age for trade shows, so business was booming. Then, in 2001, 9/11 hit and the temporary kibosh on travel quashed demand for trade show displays. Couple that with the tech boom crash and the subsequent 2001–2002 recession, and ColorZone was in trouble.
Enter Joshua Feller, a 20-year veteran of the technology industry who was weary of corporate life. “I was tired of politics and boards of directors, and I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily looking for a print shop, but [ColorZone] had the right look and feel, it had the right opportunity for growth, and it had a very good customer base and reputation.”
In 2005, Feller bought the company and immediately began investing in new equipment to build upon the company’s small base of two HP aqueous printers and Seal laminator. Always on the cutting edge, he said, “I bought the first HP 10000 104-inch solvent printer, and I had the first Mimaki production flatbed in California that had white ink—the JF1631. I bought my first [EFI] QS about seven or eight years ago.”
The M.O. of ColorZone’s original owners had been to outsource everything that was beyond what they could do in-house, which Feller ultimately found to be an unsatisfactory strategy. “The first time I used one of their outsourcing partners, I ordered a large banner,” Feller said. “I couldn’t sell it. It was terrible. So I decided then I would bring in the equipment to meet my customers’ needs so that I could control the quality.” At present, the only work he outsources is dye-sublimation or output larger than three meters. For now.
“I want to be a one-stop shop for my clients,” he added. “My clients love it, and we’ve never lost a client.” ColorZone has also earned a reputation for taking on small projects that others won’t touch, and it’s enabled Feller to reach out to small and emerging businesses. “I have a small shop and we’re very nimble,” he said. “There are all these small companies trying to get to market, and they’re looking for someone to help them.”
Nowhere has this been more evident than when Feller added label production to ColorZone’s arsenal. Feller had been printing labels on his wide-format equipment—prototypes or relatively short runs of 500 or 1,000 labels. “I could do that on one of my Epsons and cut them on my Esko table and it might take half a day to do 1,000 labels.” When those companies eventually saw their business grow, they would need orders of magnitude more labels, which was beyond ColorZone’s capabilities. So Feller saw an opportunity, and an equipment introduction allowed him to have the best of both printing worlds.
At a recent LabelExpo, he purchased the first EFI Jetrion label printing system. What sold him was the white ink capability. “That white ink is unmatchable in the industry right now,” he said. “That closed the deal for me so I bought it. It was a little painful at the beginning because I had the first one, but it’s been a great experience in the long run.” He’s now looking at purchasing second Jetrion.
The ability to produce both long- and short-run labels has allowed ColorZone to help out small businesses that don’t need tens or hundreds of thousands of labels. The Jetrion’s inline laser cutting has also eliminated the need for die-cutting. The company’s proximity to Napa Valley has also proven to be a boon. “Within 30 miles of my office there are 700 wineries,” he said, “and they’re not all Mondavis producing millions of cases a year. Some are doing 80 cases of this, 200 cases of that. That’s the beauty of that machine: it’s all digital and no dies. If you need 2,000 of this label, and 15,000 of that label, I can run them back to back. That capability has made us very popular.”
The challenge of moving from big stuff like display graphics to small stuff like labels has been grokking the economics. “It’s a whole new business model,” he said. “I can produce a 4 x 8-foot sheet for $100 and there’s profit in it. With labels, you’re talking about things that cost fractions of a penny and you have to do millions to make any money. The machine’s capabilities give me so much opportunity.”
Expanding into the label business has also brought him more wide-format work.
“My label customers were all large-format customers,” he said. “We do a lot of work for Clif Bars. We wrap all their vehicles, and we’re now doing labeling. It’s going the other way, too, now. I have label clients who find out I can do trade show graphics.”
Having a loyal customer base also pays off when those customers pursue new opportunities. The founders of the Clif bar recently sold the company and launched a new venture called Clif Family Winery. “It’s not just wines, but nuts, mustards, jams, and specialty foods, and we’re doing labels for them,” said Feller. “Those clients are crossing over quite well.”
For its wide-format work, which includes virtually everything under sun, including trade show graphics, banners, vehicle and fleet graphics, interior and exterior signage, wallcoverings and wallpaper, window clings, and POP displays, the company’s 3.2-meter EFI VUTEk 3220 hybrid printer it its workhorse, and has allowed the company to print on a bewildering variety of materials. “I’ve printed on everything—glass, plastic, concrete, cork. People come to us and say, ‘I think I want to do this, how can we do it?’ I want to find out what I can use to help my clients get where they want to go.”
With the burgeoning label business, ColorZone is expanding in that direction, but Feller also has his eye on other emerging applications.
“Fabric is growing tremendously,” he said. “The only thing I would go into that I haven’t done yet is dye-sublimation. I’m having trouble seeing how I’m not going to be forced into it. That would probably be the next new market for me.”
At the moment, Feller likes being small and nimble, and being able to serve those small businesses that have modest needs—and then stay with them as they grow. “A woman in Benicia started a little industry making frozen ice pops with organic ingredients,” he said. “They had just gotten into four Whole Foods locations as a test market. They only needed 500 labels and they couldn’t find anyone to print them. She came to me, I ran them for her, and since then she’s been coming back.” The frozen ice pop business took off, the company scaled up and invested in automatic packaging machinery, and now they’re in 200 Whole Foods stores. “They’re ordering labels by the thousands,” said Feller, “and she’s sent me six other clients in the cottage industry foods market—brownies, cupcakes.
“They’re all in the same boat,” Feller added. “What do you do if you’ve got a small company, trying to make a name for yourself, producing 500 of something instead of 500,000? That’s really my business.”