zenprint: Zen and the Art of Printing in Provo, UT
J.D. Gardner’s journey into the printing industry came courtesy of vertical integration. While describing his ZenPrint business as merely a printing operation is extremely limiting, there is a lot to like about the owner of this Provo, UT-based firm. He’s willing to work with clients on a number of levels, even if the relationship doesn’t entail cranking up his digital presses.
ZenPrint plays home to Web-to-print (W2P) storefronts and a tool kit of modules to enhance e-commerce sites, as well as a print API (application program interface) that enables customers to plug ZenPrint technology and printing into existing customer relationship management platforms and third-party applications. The company’s reputation and sales volume have grown substantially since its 2007 debut, aided by some key acquisitions and deft relationship building.
Gardner got his feet wet with W2P solutions while working at a client—a fledgling Mexican restaurant chain that had sprouted up 20+ locations in a little more than a year. The chain needed templates to create branded marketing materials that could be offered to franchisees, but it could not justify high-end, server-based W2P solutions with six-figure licenses. Gardner sought out a user-friendly way to facilitate orders and match them up with established printing and fulfillment sources.
“The original idea was to build a Web service, named ZenFront, that facilitated the online customization and ordering of branded goods and marketing collateral for small businesses and distributed enterprises,” he recalls. “But we learned, quickly, that we were ahead of our time in terms of that idea. There weren’t a lot of print APIs out there or printers that wanted to be able to take print-ready files over the Internet. It was hard to find any printer that had or was willing to do the product breadth that was required. For us, trying to build a business off that was a challenge, because we had developers and different costs on our side that we had to cover.”
Starting From the Ground Floor
In 2007, Gardner bought out a local printing company from two owners who were set to retire, keeping them active on a commission basis. The business included a handful of employees and a small fleet of Heidelberg presses, including a GTO and a Speedmaster. Gardner built up the operation with digital printing equipment, adding Xerox iGens.
Three years later, Gardner seized the opportunity to acquire the printing and technology assets of one of its clients, Heritage Makers, a party planning scrapbooking venture that opted to concentrate on marketing. That led the company to its present location in Provo, where it employs 45 workers full-time and about 30 percent more during the peak holiday months of November and December.
In 2014, ZenPrint acquired the printing division of a third-party logistics and warehousing firm. Gardner brought in that company’s print-specific workforce, as well as its equipment, making it the fourth acquisition in just seven years.
Growth has marked ZenPrint’s brief existence, particularly in the past year, as 2014 eclipsed previous bests in fourth quarter and annual sales, the latter of which billowed by an astounding 60-plus percent. While Gardner does not divulge specific sales, he does allude to the company cracking the eight figure plateau for the first time.
ZenPrint has made some key equipment investments to help continue down the path toward growth, including a D5 diecutter and a JetStream trimming, slitting, scoring and perforating system—both from Rollem International—as well as a Bourg perfect binder and two Xerox iGen 150s (more on these shortly). This hardware was complemented by the 2014 launch of ZenPrint’s print API and ZenDirect application.
There are three pillars under the ZenPrint umbrella: ZenFront, ZenDirect and the ZenAPI. ZenFront is a hosted, branded storefront for businesses to set up high-turnover items such as business cards, marketing collateral, postcards, invitations and greeting cards, as well as marketing sundries with logos (water bottles, bags, mugs) and branded apparel. The company currently hosts 60-plus ZenFront sites.
ZenDirect is a stand-alone Web application for enabling automated off-line marketing. While ZenFront targets a distributed enterprise or a larger company, ZenDirect focuses on individual salespeople in need of a marketing quarterback for mailings, personalized products and gifts. It offers several payment tiers, from a pay-as-you-go model to a platinum monthly plan. ZenDirect is integrated with a wide variety of CRMs, making it as easy to incorporate and automate off-line marketing as e-mail.
Chatbooks is one of ZenPrint’s most recent success stories. Using ZenPrint’s API for automated print and fulfillment, Chatbooks is enabling consumers using their mobile app to print photo books out of the images stored on the user’s Instagram feeds. The mobile app is less than a year old, but it has simply exploded: ZenPrint churns out thousands of Chatbooks per day.
“For me, it’s cool to enable those types of applications and entrepreneurial endeavors,” Gardner relates. “Entrepreneurs can focus on what they know best and leave the capex investments and heavy lifting to us. Also, marketers are getting a lot of value from our ZenDirect application from the standpoint of stronger customer relationships. As a small business, they’re able to show that they really care about their customers and can develop a bond that most bigger companies can’t attain.
“We built our solution and technology platform in a modular way,” Gardner states. “There are some people who want us to handle everything for them, and we basically become their PSP. We do that by leveraging our technology, predominantly. They can plug in the modules, like ZenDesign, which is basically written on top of an (Adobe) InDesign server. This enables you, as the marketing department, to create your own templates in Adobe Creative Suite and then make them available for online customization.
“The ZenStudio module creates photo-based products and marketing materials, where you want to give your employees more latitude in terms of the design and the finished product.”
Being a small company, Gardner resists the temptation of being all things to all customers. Being a flexible business partner is the preferred approach, as he observes, “We love it when we’re part of a broader solution that creates value.”
Rolling Profits Back Into Business
ZenPrint’s development formula sees 70 percent of profits earmarked toward equipment and software investments back into the business. The Rollem digital finishing equipment additions have proven pivotal: the D5 diecutter has opened the door to offering unusual and diverse holiday cards, and clients also have the ability to create custom magnetic dies easily and affordably. One client, which services dental and orthodontic offices nationwide, created a tri-fold holiday greeting card/customer appreciation mailer with a perforated fold that contained coupons for end users to utilize throughout the year. Absent the D5, Gardner says the job could not have been done at his shop.
The JetStream has been a “game changer,” according to Gardner, and the bi-directional cutting of digitally printed business cards has provided huge productivity and labor savings for ZenPrint. Card jobs that used to take all day and into the night can now be knocked out in three or four hours.
“We can receive an order at 10 p.m. and get it out the door by noon the next day,” Gardner notes. “It’s been a strong differentiator for us and the reason our client satisfaction level is so high. As we’ve gotten bigger, it’s harder to keep with that original value proposition. But, by installing our JetStream, we’re back in the sweet spot again.”
Gardner envisions adding another iGen 150 and a second JetStream finishing system in the not-too-distant future. An inserter that can address in real time—which speaks to anticipated growth in greeting cards—is also high on the shopping list. He also sees acquisitions as being a continuing vehicle toward organizational growth, targeting prospects that will layer on technology and geographic diversity.
In the short term, Gardner is concentrating on expanding awareness toward his company’s print APIs and the potential offered by ZenDirect, which boasts a large number of integrations with Web apps and CRMs.
“That’s the part of the business that gets me the most excited and passionate, in terms of where we go and how we keep building,” he notes. “We’re implementing more of a blocking-and-tackling model by targeting larger enterprises and setting up ZenFronts and being their PSP of choice. At the same time, we’re also looking for great developers who want to write cool print applications and where ZenPrint is the back-end fulfillment partner of those apps. With ZenPrint and its Web 2.0 integrations, we have a killer opportunity to show the world how innovative and unique our platform is for marketers.
“I never would’ve envisioned learning, understanding and loving the printing business as much as I do. I love the fact that we have a hard-core software component to our business and a tech component, but there’s also an aspect of high quality, custom manufacturing that’s now a core part of our ethos as a company. It’s the combination of those two worlds that has served us very well. Now, we’re excited to see how far we can take this platform.” PI