Davis Siksnans is a believer that most good business ideas come out of solving your own need. His first company Startup Vitamins was exactly that. And a need in that business directly led to Printful, which is now one of the largest print on demand drop ship companies in the world. I sat down to talk with Davis about the journey of stating Printful, why print on demand is empowering a wide range of entrepreneurs, and how COVID has impacted the business.
Dave Knox: I want to start with the story of Printful. What is the business and how did it start?
David Siksnans: Printful is a print- on- demand drop shipping business. In simple terms, we print T- shirts and other print items on demand on the behalf of e- Commerce store owners with their branding, and send these items directly to the buyers of their stores so they don’t have to do all the printing, or hiring of staff, or managing equipment themselves.
I’m one of the co-founders in Printful along with two other guys. I joined an incubator named Draugiem Group when I was 18 and worked with the co-founders of Printful for four years prior to us starting Printful. The incubator we worked at has started over 100 business ideas over the course of 15 years. The first successful idea was inspired by the first social network, Friendster, where we launched a localized social network in our country of Latvia.
Startup Vitamins was one idea that was directly before Printful. We were changing offices in our city of Riga, Latvia and we moved into this beautiful office which had free wall space where we wanted to put inspirational startup quotes on it but couldn’t find quotes on the internet to buy as posters. We decided to design our own posters and make our walls beautiful. It turned out there were a lot of other startup businesses out there who wanted the same thing, so we filled a very specific niche in the market by launching these specific designs for specific people who are interested in startups. That was the birth of Startup Vitamins.
We went from Startup Vitamins to Printful when we wanted to move beyond selling posters to other tech folks and we wanted to sell apparel the same way we did posters by printing them on demand once the order comes in. At that time, businesses in the apparel space were screen printing lots of shirts that they didn’t know if they’re going to sell. We did not want to do that and started looking for someone that could do print on demand. There were some out there but they were not tech companies. They were these analog Mom and Pop print shops, local printers who printed T- shirts, but they didn’t know how to adapt to the new age of e-commerce and online stores. Startup Vitamins was running on Shopify and at the time, none of these existing companies had an integration with Shopify where you could sell t-shirts on demand. So that is what inspired Printful. As Startup Vitamins we needed a drop shipping, on demand print service that could integrate with Shopify. There was not a service like that, so we started one.
Knox: Many of your customers today are solo e-commerce entrepreneurs who use your services to generate passive and additional income. What have you learned about what you need to do to support them and help them build their businesses so you can build yours?
Siksnans: We are focused on decreasing barriers of entry for anybody who wants to start their own e-commerce business with a print on demand. Much like Shopify is making it easier to launch their online store from a e-commerce platform, we are decreasing other barriers to launch a store. We are trying to make it very easy to design items through tools like mock generators. We are also encouraging these entrepreneurs to really think about the niche they are going into. We see the most successful people being those that pick a specific niche. Just like Startup Vitamins picked these startup companies who would resonate with quotes like “build fast and break things”, our most successful customers are those who pick a very specific niche, like medical students, or other niches that they know a lot about or they can target effectively using social media marketing or advertising.
Knox: Printful just celebrated it’s seventh anniversary. You have more than a thousand employees, six fulfillment centers worldwide, and you saw revenues climb from 77 million to 116 million from 2018 to 2019. What has been driving that growth?
Siksnans: Obviously there is the overarching trend of people just generally buying more goods online, especially apparel, which is the biggest category on internet in terms of volume sold, but more people also want to buy personalized items. People are willing to spend a little more money on items that are personalized or unique, and they want to stand out in a crowd. If you buy from a large retailer, let’s say H& M or Zara, you’re not going to be very unique. People are looking for smaller brands who you resonate with their messaging. And a lot of that could be done by utilizing print on demand services like Printful. Also, on the point about picking a niche, social media influencers have grown tremendously, they are looking to monetize their audiences, and they often don’t make enough money from running ads on their YouTube channel. These influencers make more money by selling merchandise that their audience is very willing to buy because they support that influencer. Platforms like Patreon having become popular because that is a way people can support their influencers through sponsorship, and buying their merchandise is similar to that. And this year our growth has been accelerated by the pandemic, and that’s because a lot of retail apparel stores were closed and a lot of extra income opportunities like driving Uber or renting out your property on Airbnb suddenly dried up. A lot of people are gravitating towards a business that you can truly do from your home, and print on demand elegantly fits that criteria. You can start a small online niche brand by picking an e-commerce platform such as Shopify, picking a print on demand partner such as us, and then even selling your items on marketplace like Etsy. All of those trends are really fueling our growth.
Knox: Talking about that growth during the pandemic, while it was easy for your customers to start a business working from home, Printful still had to keep the logistics side moving. How did you do that during the last few months?
Siksnans: It was incredibly challenging. So unlike software, where you can just turn on a bunch of servers in Amazon Web Services, we had to hire real people who work in our facilities. We had to change shifts and had to introduce social distancing as much as possible in our facility. For several months, we could not keep up with the sudden surge in demand that we saw because of the pandemic, and we had to proactively communicate with our customer base that we are delayed. The key there was transparency so we made constant updates to our COVID- 19 page and also on social media about the efforts that we underway as a company to scale up, and that we were doing everything possible to get back to normal. During the pandemic, we managed to hire hundreds of new employees, buy equipment worth $10+ million, and launch a completely new facility in Barcelona. Spain was particularly hard hit from COVID but we managed to launch it as soon as the restriction eased there. It was very difficult and I am very proud of our operations team who have been able to scale up despite the restrictions put in place by the pandemic.
Knox: How has Printful strategic thought about the expansion of your supply chain?
Siksnans: In e-commerce, it’s very important to deliver goods fast to your customers. We can see that because Amazon has been so successful with their two day fulfillment and increasingly putting their fulfillment centers close to where their customers are. We are trying to follow that in our own way, reducing transit times to countries where we ship to. So opening in Spain was very important to reduce average transit time to our customers in Western Europe. Before that, we just had our fulfillment center in Riga, Latvia, which is in Northeast of Europe, so we picked the opposite side of Europe for our second European location. We did the same in US by picking Los Angeles, where one of our fulfillment center is, and Charlotte, North Carolina. And we also picked Spain because there are a lot of Spanish speaking people in the US as well as globally. So our strategy is basically adding a local fulfillment capabilities, such as our fulfillment center in Spain, translating the website in the language where it is necessary, and adding other localizations, such as localized currency, which for Europe meant Euros.
Knox: When you talk to aspiring e-commerce entrepreneurs, what advice do you give them on the lessons that you learned personally building Printful?
Siksnans: The first advice is picking the right niche and then the right targeting. The other aspect I stress is the fact that a lot of good business ideas come out of solving your own need. We solved our own need with Startup Vitamins, where we needed business posters, and we solved our own needs by launching Printful, which was a print on demand service that would integrate with our Shopify backend. Trying to find a business idea like that, you will understand your customer better, and that will help you to develop a better service. For instance, all the products that we still sell on Startup Vitamins are fulfilled by Printful. We use our own product, and we often test new features with our own brand. We kept it around specifically for that reason, to actually be our own customer of Printful. Beyond this, I would suggest focusing a lot on creating content that resonates with your customer base. For instance, in Startup Vitamins, we focused on being the first on Google for keywords motivational posters. With Printful, one of the most important keywords that we want to rank for on Google is print on demand and the variations of that, and our marketing teams are focused on writing the content around that. And to this day, most growth to Printful comes organically, because we invested a lot over the years by producing blog posts, videos, and other content about topics that resonate with our customer base. You want to think about who your customers are and what kind of content they would be searching for, and invest in SEO very early on.