Friday, July 26, 2013

Lob is disrupting the Printing Industry- one Poster at a time!

In a world where even Print Service Providers sometimes question whether the printed piece has the compelling power it once did, a two month old Silicon Valley startup is achieving success by making (gasp!) paper-based, physical products-- albeit selling them via the most modern of programming techniques.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, and stints on Wall Street, and at Amazon Web Services and Microsoft, Leore Avidar and Harry Zhang founded their company Lob, and were accepted into the well-respected startup accelerator program at Y Combinator just a matter of weeks ago—and they are already generating revenue from their service at a fast pace of growth.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that among my favorite topics are cloud printing, integration and automation, so as soon as I heard about Lob I needed to know more about the founders, their idea, and plans. Lob specifically refers to themselves as "Cloud Printing for Developers".  I love it. I sent Leore an email, and we spent a few minutes discussing the company and their approach. 

The concept and execution are both compelling. They created the service as a solution for software developers who want to include printing and distribution capabilities with their web/mobile applications. Without Lob, this is hard to do, and expensive.  With Lob, it’s easy and priced competitively.

In terms of startups who work with Y-Combinator, Lob is one of the youngest companies. Their idea was to expose printing to developers via an API (Application Programming Interface).  It took them a week to develop the initial alpha API, and then immediately got started working with customers.

The technical challenges were one thing, but getting familiar with printing industry jargon, paper and ink choices, etc. also presented challenges. Lob initially produced their products with their own desktop printers. Now, the company manufactures and distributes through a network of printing partners to whom they route the jobs.  Many of their print partners are good at printing and reliable delivering on time, but don’t understand how APIs work, and don’t have programmers.  For such partners, Lob translates the order instructions for the job and delivery into human readable form, or helps the printer develop the integration.

Their first printed product idea was transactional mail—financial statements, bills, etc.  Almost as soon as they engaged with customers, they started hearing new use cases. So they turned their attention to other printed items. Turns out, other products were more desirable. Because they are an agile Silicon Valley startup, and using their API, they can create new products of virtually any shape and size, from the ground up, quickly.

Brace yourself: according to Leore, physical mail is making a comeback: open rates are up.  Email open rates are down. His customers want to engage with users via physical mail… when they buy a product or reach a certain milestone. I almost fell off my chair—I thought to myself, “I know this… what’s wrong with all the naysayers in this industry?”

And as it turns out, there are a couple of things wrong with the printing process, from a customer standpoint, that Lob is addressing nicely.  Print automation and personalization are really hard for people outside this industry. When Harry worked at Microsoft, he had a project where he needed to send a large number of printed pieces, each personalized with information about products, and each to be delivered to a different address.  As many have found before him, when it came time to have them printed and mailed, there was no good way to do this… and service providers were expensive. Instead, Harry himself and colleagues spent untold hours printing, addressing, stuffing and mailing the envelopes. So the idea for Lob was born.

Other product ideas soon flowed. According to Leore, posters are “killing it.”  And this certainly shouldn’t be news to most Printers-- on demand posters, sold on a partner’s website, with no inventory required, shipped directly to the ordering customer… are a money maker.

As the startup culture requires, a prospective customers simply reads the documentation for the company’s REST API, at, then signs up and orders an item sent to their self.  Almost immediately, most such customers start running batches of real work for their own customers. Not surprisingly at least for now, many of the company’s customers are other Silicon Valley startups—who begin with small quantities of print, then grow their business. LOB has grown with them. It’s a great market and Lob knows where startups hang out.

In their very short existence, Lob already has hundreds of customers and is generating revenue, the founders say.  With an innovative idea and a great technical approach, along with great energy and passion, it’s going to be very exciting to watch their evolution.  I can hardly wait to see what they are doing a few months from now—it’s bound to be a great story.