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Printing Money

Andrew Field didn't have enough work to keep his presses busy. So he got other printing companies into the act.
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The Fourth Annual Inc Web Awards: Killer Apps

Company: PrintingForLess .com, in Livingston, Mont.
URL: www.printingforless.com
What we liked: A job-sharing extranet helped turn this small-town business into a national player

The way Andrew Field sees it, an idle printing press is like a half-full passenger jet. "When a plane takes off with empty seats, that's revenue lost forever," says Field, founder and president of PrintingForLess.com. "Same thing if I have employees standing around and no jobs scheduled for three hours."

And Field isn't talking pocket change. Every hour that his presses sit silent means thousands of dollars in missed opportunity. To minimize downtime, Field uses an airline tactic: he overbooks. Field accepts more printing jobs than his 45-employee company can handle and relies on a Web-based service of his own invention to manage the backlog and make sure that customers don't suffer for it. The service, a sophisticated extranet called PFL-Net, evolved from growing demand at Field's on-line print shop.


TYPE A PERSONALITY: Andrew Field wasn't content with running a small local company. So he created a network to share work with other printers.

PrintingForLess.com (originally called Express Color Printing Inc.), founded in 1996, handles complex color-printing jobs: 5,000 business cards, say, or 10,000 posters. There's not a ton of such work in Livingston, a town of 7,000 residents, and Field's travels around Big Sky country in the late 1990s failed to drum up enough sales to keep his first $500,000 press humming. By late 1998, he says, his company was "just plugging along" with $70,000 to $80,000 a month in sales. So in 1999, Field sought to augment revenues by going on the Web.

His business's site doesn't compete with companies like iPrint.com, which gives its customers the option of designing their products on-line. Field's small-business customers submit electronic files with their existing designs, whether for the letterhead they've used for decades or for a brand-new brochure they've just whipped up using Microsoft Word. After totting up the cost on an on-line calculator, they point and click to upload their files through the Web site, or mail them in on a CD or a Zip or Jaz disk.


"Even our local customers decided they liked the Web better," says Andrew Field.

Within two days of submitting a print job, customers can view an electronic job proof by downloading either an HTML or an Adobe PDF file. After they approve proofs, their orders are captured in a SQL database system, which tries first to schedule printing time on a PrintingForLess.com press. If all Field's presses are booked, the system moves the job to PFL-Net, where other printers can pick it up. Or Field can take one of their excess orders if things in his shop are slow. There's no bidding: partners simply log in, accept jobs, download files, then handle printing and delivery from their own plants. In exchange, they get a fixed percentage -- Field won't say how much -- of his company's take. The whole transaction remains invisible to customers.

Field says PFL-Net helped boost revenues from $1 million in 1999 to $4.3 million last year, and the company is on track to take in $8 million to $9 million this year. PrintingForLess.com now owns three printing presses, and PFL-Net should allow the company to continue growing without needing to invest in more, Field says.

Meanwhile, assisted by PFL-Net, PrintingForLess.com's Web site now brings in 95% of the company's revenues, eclipsing the storefront business. "Even our local customers decided they liked the Web better," Field says. "It's become the tail that wags the dog."


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