Online print specialists put it all down to experience

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The executives behind are the first to admit that they hardly fit the profile of the typical internet entrepreneur. Sure, there are some youthful faces around the fledgling online print broker, but the emphasis is very much on experience.

Founder and chairman Warren Tayler - the man behind The Color Company, the nationwide chain of digital print bureaux - is 60, while both Jim Kachenmeister, the recently appointed chief executive, and Bertie Maxwell, the finance director, are in their early fifties.

Even their more youthful colleagues have sufficient knowledge of their market that the company can claim to call on a collective 80 years of print industry experience.

"We think the business experience comes first," says Mr Kachenmeister, who arrived at in February, after a career with Eastman Kodak, and then with the European operation of the troubled office services company Danka. "You can learn the internet," he says. "You can't just learn 80 years of experience in the print business."

Essentially, what ctrlp is trying to do is use the internet to make print buying more efficient for both users and printers. Printing and related services form the world's sixth -largest industry. In the UK alone, there are an estimated 12,000 businesses in this area, while a myriad of people at one time or another need to purchase print or print-related services.

It is this fragmentation that makes the industry attractive to ctrlp and its rivals. Because most of the buyers of print are small companies, there are huge inefficiencies at what Mr Kachenmeister calls "the front end of the market". A company such as ctrlp can attack these, while also helping the thousands of printers who are not fully utilising their capacity by giving them a chance to bid for jobs they would otherwise know nothing about. As Mr Kachenmeister says: "Anywhere there are inefficiencies at both ends, is a great place for an intermediary to be."

And at a time when many consumer-focused internet start-ups are struggling to make money out of their ingenious ideas, ctrlp has a simple business model. As a player in the increasingly favoured business-to-business, or B2B, market, it simply charges a commission on the price that the printer gets for the work.

In the internet frenzy of just a few weeks ago, this would have been a passport to a swift stock-market listing at a handsome issue price. However, the recent volatility in hi-tech stocks has forced the company to scale back plans to obtain finance to top up the private funding with which ctrlp was launched at the beginning of the year.

It had intended to seek £15m through a placing on AIM early next month, which would have valued the business at about £40m. Mr Kachenmeister says that support for the company, which numbers the Asda chief-turned Conservative MP, Archie Norman, among its non-executive directors, remains strong. But he and his colleagues are discussing with would-be investors proposals to raise somewhat less.

It is clearly unfortunate timing. But Mr Kachenmeister takes the view that it is better in the long run for the company to set its funding sights lower than to have a listing, only to find its shares trading at below the initial price.

He and his team realise that they are not the only ones to have seen the potential in this area, but they believe that their operation will differ from its rivals by taking responsibility for the fulfilment of the service rather than just putting buyers and sellers together.

And this is where the emphasis on print experience, rather than on the internet, comes in. Steve Lovatt, the company's comparatively young, 35-year-old marketing and customer services director, says that having a phone number on its website is anathema for many internet businesses. But at ctrlp, "we don't remove the personal contact". Instead, customers with a problem or a query speak to a member of the operations team, who can guide a novice through the intricacies of ordering a batch of business cards or help an experienced print buyer make more sophisticated decisions.

Mr Lovatt also points out that one of the curiosities of the internet is that - rather than spelling the end of the print industry - it is creating demand for print that previously did not exist "because of the need to reach the real world".

Nor is it just the internet that is boosting this "latent" market. Mr Lovatt believes that the revolution in communications that has made fax machines, mobile phones and email features of many homes as well as offices has created a need for a personal form of the business card. Ctrlp is so anxious to be in the vanguard of this development that it is offering visitors to its website the chance to order 50 such "p-cards" free of charge.

It is all part of a plan to be much more than a broker. Ctrlp is aiming to establish a community of print buyers and users. One way it hopes to bring this about is to offer printing and associated products for sale, and it has been talking to suppliers such as Xerox and Canon. Another idea is to launch a regular newsletter to report on developments in the industry.

Nor is the company prepared to limit its operations to Britain. It is already looking to build a presence in continental Europe and the US through partnerships and strategic alliances. Even realists like the ctrlp team can see the value of internet technology in breaking down national boundaries.