I dropped out of Stanford to co-found ink with Slovenian entrepreneur and technologist Denis Benic. We created the company to be the new face of printing. Like a lot of start-ups before us, we chose our validating market to be higher-ed.
I don’t think Denis and I would have ever told you we envisioned ourselves innovating in the printing space. My passions were bringing soul, beauty, strategy, and substance to ideas at the frontier; Denis’s passion is the ideas. But as we peeled back the layers of printing, it was just too mind boggling not to explore. Inquiry turned into intrigue, which turned into a vision and a solution.
Millennials Print More Than Any Generation
Roughly 500 years after the emergence of the printing press, mainstream opinion was that printing was to go the way of the dodo. Contrary to this, 92 percent of millennials preferred print material to digital,¹ millennials were the number one age group consuming printed photos,² and the business service center category (e.g. The UPS Store) which generates 70 percent of its revenue from document rendering³ (i.e. print, scan, copy), was growing year-over-year.⁴ Crazy, I know.
Millennials and Gen Z prefer printed stuff vs. digital stuff for the same reasons they prefer to meet up with their friends on the weekend in-person vs. Facetiming them. Digital just can’t emulate a human experience.
A Lot Has Changed in 30 Years, Nothing Really Has in Printing
The growth of digital printing closely follows the growth of the personal computing industry. The digital printing industry to-date has organized itself horizontally. More or less, a big manufacturer makes printers and sells them to distributors which then bundle them with a bunch of hardware and software add-ons to make them fit the needs of an environment, like a college campus. In the 90s, before Google Drive, the iPhone, and the software revolution, this made sense. Software only had to integrate with a few printer models, there were only a handful of applications you could print from, and file types and formatting rarely changed.
Now, to serve the needs of a school or office, under the horizontal model, a jigsaw puzzle of software and hardware needs to be solved. The end experience is comically complex and error-prone. As a result, the phone became something we developed brand connections with before the printer, a tinderbox for artistic expression.
The Deeper and Thicker the Roots, the Harder It Is to Pull out a Weed
Few industries have as deep, thorny roots as “Big Print.” You just can’t change a university’s print infrastructure overnight. However, when the weed starts interfering with the garden, it is time to go to the shed, and this is exactly what is happening in higher-ed. Students simply can’t print with the current infrastructure, and they want to more than ever before.
Earlier this decade, universities starting turning to integrators to assuage some of the pain. For example, Alabama-based WEPA, which has 175 higher-ed customers, bundled an OKI Data printer with a metal print cabinet and cloud-based print release software, which allows stations to be untethered from print labs. ePRINTit, a Canadian-based company makes a similar product, and Xerox distributors have begun marketing a “kiosk-based” solution through the EFI platform.
One of the World’s Largest Industries is in the First Days of Massive Reinvention
The print problem is systemic and to solve it, ink has built its company vertically. This way, our engineers and product designers are able to identify a user end goal and then tailor everything — each line of code and every screw — using the latest technology. We can create new types of products and experiences; the next Polaroid picture. As a mission-based company which celebrates empathy and creativity, our customer success team is able to share soulful experiences with our end customers.
Of course, success doesn’t come overnight when reimagining one of the largest industries in the world, and extraordinary challenges are anticipated from time to time. For example, during year three, we had a fairly public hostile takeover attempt during the front-end of a round of financing valuing the company in excess of $100 million. But you can’t beat fate and the laws of the universe. Printing — one of the largest industries in the world — is in the first days of massive reinvention.
¹ Schaub, Michael. “92% Of College Students Prefer Print Books to e-Books, Study Finds.” Las Angeles Times, 9 Feb. 2016.
² Futuresource Consulting. “Imaging Ecosystem Consumer Research.” 2018.
³ Dun & Bradstreet Hoover’s First Research. “Business Service Centers & Copy Shops Industry Profile.”