Rushing into print without fail: how a Latvian entrepreneur grew a three-person start-up into one of the world's leading drop shipping companies.
The globe is full of human beings, but it’s driven by the most enthusiastic ones. We launch our series of interviews with the gurus in their fields. These people make visual technologies happen.
We announce our first hero - Davis Siksnans - CEO and Co-founder of “Printful”.
He started with a three-person team making t-shirts in the garage of Lauris Liberts, friend and business partner. Their kiddo Printful is all grown up and has become a company of more than 500 employees across the US, Mexico, and Europe, helping people launch a business as easily as possible. Not only that, Davis knows how to run a company based in two continents with a ten-hour time difference.
So we asked this superhero all about POD and we're pretty sure he'll inspire you as much as he did us.
What is Printful?
Printful is one of the world’s biggest multi-purpose companies providing services including printing, packaging, shipping, and warehousing. It is the middle layer between customer and owner. The main purpose of Printful is to make a launch of your own e-commerce business as easy as possible and let you focus on design, marketing, and sales instead of thinking about the “how” part. Printful is integrated with most e-commerce platforms and online marketplaces. The company was founded in 2013 by Davis Siksnans and Lauris Liberts.
How did you start?
We were originally interested in the e-commerce side of POD. The focus just happened to shift to printing. We’ve come from a group of people who tried hundreds of business-ideas around Internet and technologies, but the idea that preceded Printful was e-commerce related.
We developed an interest in printing because it enabled us to sell goods online and on demand. From the very beginning, we weren't fans of keeping stock or taking risks with inventory.
The story of how we got to Printful starts with Startup Vitamins, a brand that we ran using third-party printing services available at the time. And back to 2012 we didn’t meet the speed and quality criteria on the market, and most importantly they didn’t have any API, so there was no automation of order process. So, with no outsourcing and providers on the market, we started on our own.
Our first printer—a garage-type setup—was located in the Los Angeles home of one of our co-founders. Because we were particularly interested in printing t-shirts, we started out with a “Brother” printer.
We didn’t have the knowledge of the process but luckily people (who sell you equipment) help to understand how to use it. We always had great people who were smart enough to figure out how to use new technologies. But for instance, when we’ve got the first Kornit printer in 2015 it took us 6 months how to properly use it. So we just learned it, just as other things you do in your life.
What about the first clients?
We got our first customers by e-mailing the customers of Startup Vitamins. Its target audience was very entrepreneurial and open to both print-on-demand and e-commerce.
Apart from that, we also had experience in content marketing. We launched Printful with an advertising budget of five thousand dollars and it grew from there. What's important is, we were leveraging partnerships from the start. A couple of months after launch we built an integration with Shopify, and the month after that—WooCommerce. Shopify had a great app store back then, and still does, it's comparable to Apple's App Store. We figured out how the ranking worked to get us some traffic and got sellers interested in our app.
We were also very lucky with the initial press on Printful, TechCrunch even wrote a piece on us. All these were early drivers for our growth.
How does the integration work?
Our goal is to help aspiring entrepreneurs to sell their goods online, so we're constantly building new features and tools. In 2017, we expanded our offering with Warehousing & Fulfillment, so we're not just about printing anymore. We're about helping Printful customers sell more through building new features and adding new integrations.
Our first integration was with Shopify, because Startup Vitamins was initially built on Shopify. Also, when you look at the history of Shopify, you'll see that the company is run by former software developers—it was one of the very few e-commerce platforms that had a really robust, functional API. So naturally, we integrated with them first.
Fast forward to several years later, we integrate with 15 different platforms. Recently we launched eBay, which is still a major high-volume marketplace. This spring, we launched the Euro currency, so sellers in Europe can save money on exchange fees, making the process more efficient and helping the customer grow their brands globally.
Last but not least, you have to remember there are people who are designers and there are people who are marketers. It's very rare that a person who is a great designer can also be a great marketer. So what we're trying to do is to create tools so people can do both and give them information on other tools and platforms they connect with. Even if you're a brilliant designer, to run your brand, you also need a fabulous marketer and someone who knows their way around Facebook ads. And if you're not a brilliant designer, Printful has their own in-house Design Services that our customers can use for tweaking and creating their designs.
How do you sell?
Advertising can be hard, it's always an experiment. Sometimes it's a matter of coming up with some kind of hypothesis, like “ranking for this keyword will get us results” or “changing our app listings will boost our growth”, and then just doing it. Now we have a significantly more data-driven approach to running our ad campaigns and experiments.
Our marketing channels have also changed over time. A great deal of Printful's growth is driven by non-paid marketing channels, meaning we've always been big on SEO and organic traffic.
We've also always had a content team that creates content for our website and blog. When you compare our work with what others are doing, you'll see that we have way more content on topics relevant for sellers. We do still advertise and our ad budget is much larger now, but it's not the crucial element of our customer acquisition. It's mostly for promoting content and boosting our organic growth. We optimize our internal content as well as the content of our integration listings. Our marketing team spends a considerable amount of time on co-marketing activities with our partners and other events.
Any trends to implement?
We've launched several services to help our sellers, including Design Services and E-commerce Photography services. Now we are working on the Video-services, because video-advertising is a trend in e-commerce. Especially as you see e-commerce on Instagram is growing by reason of Instagram Stories.
But there are also core things that really matter to our customers just like mockup-generator. So we're updating it all the time. There is less and less need for the seller to use another graphic design software which makes things complicated for them to be successful. Our integrations are developed in adding new features. Recently we launched personalization for Shopify, Woocommerce, and Etsy. So now our sellers can create unique listings where the buyer uploads their graphic on their storefront. So basically it's a sort of having a mini-Printful generator on their own website.
Where to get the inspiration for POD-beginners?
People follow Printful to get it and we are inspired by Shopify, for example. So I would suggest that beginners follow companies in the e-commerce market, especially public companies.
When companies go public, you get access to some great investor relationship data the companies are required to publish and things9 like quarterly cost insights, straight from their management. These companies are often a lot larger than Printful, so there's a lot to learn from them. So, if I wanted to learn more from Shopify, I'd follow their investor relationships, and follow their employees on social media—there's a lot to learn from.
And networking is important, absolutely. There are a lot of events to attend where you can gain knowledge. Certain conferences have worked really well for us, and we attend them year after year. This June is going to be our sixth time attending the IRCE (Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition) in Chicago. It's a great event for all things e-commerce. For printing, the SGI Expo is amazing, it's a conference that happens twice a year and is a must if you want to be up to speed with the latest printing equipment. In Europe, the FESPA in Munich is definitely worth a visit, it's another fantastic event that focuses on printing.
Any last piece of advice?
A good time to start is anytime, because a better one will never come. So just start now and see what happens.