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With a little imagination, you can design your company's printed materials without ever leaving your desk. Many online sites offer print services, but how good are they? Inc.'s panel of entrepreneurs puts them to the test.
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With a little imagination, you can design your company's printed materials online. Our panel of entrepreneurs road-test the sites offering printing services

This may be the digital age, but hard-copy printing expenses still bite deeply into many companies' budgets. Even dot-coms spend lavishly on paper products -- everything from business cards to bumper stickers to bound copies of PowerPoint sales presentations. Lots of CEOs would love to curb those costs without compromising on quality. Not surprisingly, the Web has spawned a whole industry that's trying to do just that.

Inc. asked a panel of CEOs and entrepreneurs to evaluate online printing sites. To narrow the field, we focused on self-service printers -- sites where small-business customers can create their own documents and customized products -- rather than sites geared to the printing industry, such as those that auction off print jobs or match buyers and sellers.

We also excluded many sites specializing in one product, personal greeting-card sites, and a few just-launched, under-construction, or repeatedly inaccessible sites. Finally, we eliminated several sites that sell printing services but outsource the actual work to other companies. (At OfficeMax.com, for instance, print orders are fulfilled by iPrint.com; Sir Speedy sends orders to both NowDocs.com and iPrint.com.) For comparison purposes, though, we did include the site of office superstore Staples, which many small businesses already use.

Panelists -- all online-printing novices -- road-tested the sites by placing orders of less than $50 for custom products: letterhead stationery, business cards, bound reports. Their adventures in self-service Web printing varied widely. Their biggest single complaint: sites that committed the cardinal sin of wasting their time. "When I was ready to buy, the site had completely lost my order and told me my shopping cart was empty," one panelist groused. Others disliked having to register, download software, or hunt through page after page before placing orders. "The sites need a simple Buy It button," said one frustrated tester.

Several testers said they enjoyed self-service tools that let them experiment with fonts, layouts, colors, graphics, and paper types. Others said they'd rather leave those decisions to the pros at the corner copy shop. "Printing on the Net is hard because you can't quite get the look of the paper or color on your screen," one panelist said.

Nevertheless, most panelists were pleased, or at least satisfied, with how their orders turned out. However, one CEO -- who acknowledged that his business cards were done just as he'd designed them and of decent quality -- said he doesn't expect to transfer his company's printing business online. "It just isn't the same as being able to touch and feel the samples, select based on that experience, and then get questions answered, like, What color of ink do you think works best with this paper?" he said.

In general, testers said they were most likely to occasionally turn to E-printers for specific small, basic, or repeat jobs, such as reprinting business cards previously designed by a brick-and-mortar printer. One panelist said that although he wouldn't depend on an online printer for his needs at his fast-growing business, he'd consider it for "volunteer and entrepreneurial things we do at home." And while some took advantage of special promotions like low introductory prices or other special offers, others questioned the long-term cost benefits of doing all their printing online. "It's very convenient but about twice the cost of our negotiated printer rate, with turnaround time of 7 to 10 days instead of 2 days," one panelist said. Another concluded: "Nothing caused me to think that I could get the job done better, faster, or cheaper than the way I do it now."

www.imagex.com
What it offers: Business cards, labels, stationery, and promotional products.
What it's good for: Repeat jobs initially handled by other printers; no-frills printing.
Don't waste your time on: ImageX.com's other printing services, designed for big corporations, print buyers and vendors, and graphic designers.
What our panel had to say: Testers felt the small-business center offered a quick, inexpensive solution for basic jobs, but they said it lacked enough choices to customize products. (For instance, at press time customers could choose from only three fonts for business-card printing.)

www.inaquest.com
What it offers: Business cards, letterhead, and other standard products; forms; gifts and promotional products.
What it's good for: Customized marketing giveaways, like T-shirts and phone cards; graphic-design consultation.
Don't waste your time on: Trying to figure out the site's odd name, which panelists called meaningless, confusing, and hard to remember.
What our panel had to say: Some found inaQuest.com easy to use and appealing. "This site makes me want to buy something with a logo on it -- and I don't even need anything!" one panelist remarked. But another tester called the site "frustrating" and "a waste of time," with sluggish page loads that slowed down his system.

www.iprint.com
What it offers: Business cards, letterhead, other standard products, and promotional items. The site also handles fulfillment for other businesses, including OfficeMax, Sir Speedy, and Yahoo.
What it's good for: Broad selection of fonts, colors, layouts, and paper stock; standard-setting design templates.
Don't waste your time on:
Looking for upscale promotional products; the site's limited selection includes low-ticket items like mouse pads, magnets, and pens.
What our panel had to say: Perhaps because four-year-old iPrint.com is the Web's best-known printing brand, testers held the site to particularly high standards. All praised the easy-to-use predesigned templates, but one panelist struggled with the custom layouts: "It took 10 minutes to get the hang of it -- and that's from someone who designs software for a living," he said. Another severely downgraded iPrint.com for crashing during checkout.

www.kinkos.com
What it offers: Business cards, letterhead, invitations, and folders.
What it's good for: Custom-designed notepads; resource links to other sites.
Don't waste your time on: Trying to use your own graphics or logos; at test time, the site wouldn't accept them.
What our panel had to say: Panelists liked the predesigned templates. They also liked being able to click to prices from any graphic. But therein also lies the downside. Kinkos.com -- a recent collaboration between copy-center king Kinko's and online printer Liveprint.com -- seems relatively expensive. "It was almost three times our negotiated printer rate," one CEO said. (Full disclosure: Kinkos.com partners include Inc.'s sister company, Web site inc.com.)

www.mimeo.com
What it offers: Printing, binding, and delivery of documents such as reports, business plans, and presentations.
What it's good for: Straightforward projects at competitive prices. (Mimeo.com offered a $30 discount to new customers at press time.)
Don't waste your time on: Trying to do highly complex jobs or requesting work needed the same day.
What our panel had to say: Some testers called Mimeo.com's instructions easy to follow and said it produced high-quality documents. But others got frustrated with the required printer-driver software. "Downloading the software was time-consuming, and I wasn't able to save it all on one disk," complained one panelist, who ultimately quit without ordering.

www.nowdocs.com
What it offers: Printing, binding, and delivery of documents.
What it's good for: Same-day delivery in major cities; one- or two-day delivery elsewhere.
Don't waste your time on: Using the site if you don't know how to upload documents as Zip files.
What our panel had to say: NowDocs.com requires no special software, a convenience panelists loved. They also liked being able to preview jobs before printing, to establish corporate accounts, and above all, to get their orders quickly. One tester's order arrived a day late, but NowDocs.com alerted her in advance about the delay and ultimately provided flawless documents. The sole complaint came from a CEO who had trouble registering, telephoned customer service, waited a couple of minutes on hold, and finally was advised to start over from scratch. "Not an unpleasant experience," the panelist concluded, "but not really a good use of my time."

www.printomat.com
What it offers: Business cards, letterhead, labels, Post-it Notes, rubber stamps, and promotional items.
What it's good for: Easy uploading of graphics.
Don't waste your time on: Using the site if you don't like methodical, step-by-step instructions.
What our panel had to say: Reactions to this site were all over the map. "Excellent layout and server responsiveness, nice presentation, a very efficient site," one tester reported. "Slow and dull," another complained. "I felt like I had to fight the site to get what I wanted." Panelists generally liked the broad product selection and the help and tips available throughout the process.

www.staples.com
What it offers: Business cards, letterhead, labels, promotional items, and forms.
What it's good for: Easy, large-volume jobs.
Don't waste your time on: Trying for one-stop shopping. Printing jobs, which are handled by third parties, must be transacted separately from other online purchases.
What our panel had to say: Users sometimes had trouble finding Staples.com's Print Center on the company's jam-packed Web site (from the home page, go to Business Services, then Office Operations). Once there, though, "I found the site to be extremely intuitive in terms of ordering," said one tester. However, he also said he wouldn't feel comfortable using the site's automated quote-requesting service: "I would continue to want an in-person relationship in order to feel sure that our requirements are completely understood."

www.vistaprint.com
What it offers: Business cards; letterhead, envelopes, postcards, and other products were in the works at press time.
What it's good for: Business cards designed either from templates or with the VistaStudio tool, which lets users customize and tweak their products.
Don't waste your time on: The offer for 250 "free" business cards, which advertise VistaPrint.com's business as much as yours.
What our panel had to say: All condemned the free-card come-on. "It sounded too good to be true -- and, of course, it was!" one tester said. "They take three weeks to be delivered, cost $4.95 for shipping, and carry an ad for the printer on the back." (Cards printed without the ad are available for an additional fee.) But panelists universally praised the site's user-friendly approach; one summed it up as "a very intuitive Windows-based application."

Anne Stuart is a senior writer at Inc. Technology.


The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to Online Printers

COMMENTS
Would our CEOs recommend it to others? CEOs' bottom-line take
ImageX.com Mostly no. "I can see this being used by small businesses that need to produce materials quickly and inexpensively."
inaQuest.com Mostly yes. "User-friendly site offering a variety of services that seem high quality and speedy."
iPrint.com Mostly no. "Once you get the hang of the interface, it's very easy."
Kinkos.com Mostly no. "No ability to use my graphics; limited custom- product selection."
Mimeo.com Possibly, in some cases. "Don't like downloading software." "Document received on time; quality is great."
NowDocs.com Mostly yes. "Extremely convenient site." "Job arrived one day later than promised, but quality was wonderful."
Printomat.com Mostly yes. "If they did away with their registration form and made it easier to navigate, it would be a perfect site."
Staples.com Possibly, in some cases. "Good for volume reproduction of standard documents."
VistaPrint.com Mostly no. "Clearly at a very early stage of development." "Seems to have promise."
GRADES
Ease of navigation Selection Ease of use and ordering Reliability Value Versus traditional printers Final grade
ImageX.com B+ B+ B- B+ B C+ B
inaQuest.com B+ B B B B B- B
iPrint.com A- B C B- C- C+ C+
Kinkos.com A C C+ B- D+ C- C+
Mimeo.com B C+ B B- B+ B- B-
NowDocs.com B B B- B B- C B
Printomat.com B+ A- B+ A- B C+ B
Staples.com B- C+ A B B C+ B-
VistaPrint.com B D- B+ C+ C- D C

Our Panelists

Cynthia D. Abbott, president, SmartNexus Inc.
Dennis Aubrey, CEO, Altamira Group Inc.
Don Bulens, president and CEO, Trellix Corp.
Glen Calder, vice-president, TransMedia Group
Connie Dickinson, president, DickinsonGroup LLC
Gary Goodrich, CEO, ProPay.com
Eric Grossman, CEO, SimplyHealth.com
Michael A. Harris, CEO, OnTimeAudit.com
Gregory S. Howe, president, BMS Corp.
Carmen Hughes, president, Mindshare Communications
Ben Johns, CEO, Whereoware
David Koretz, president and CEO, BlueTie Inc.
Melanie McFaddin, managing director, Trans@ctive Partners
Scott T. Newman, president, US Markerboard
Robert Prince, CEO and founder, Homes.com
William R. Robinson, chief marketing strategist, Relentless Marketing
Daniel S. Solomons, president and CEO, Hunter Recruitment Advisors
John W. Webster III, CEO, PermitsNow.com
Carol J. Wideman, president, Vcom3D Inc.
Martin D. Williams, president and CEO, U.S. Marketer.com


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2000




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