Are Print Shops Actually Tech Companies?

Before you read...

Printavo is simple shop management software. We help you streamline your business, keep jobs moving forward and your team on the same page.

Scheduling, quoting, approvals, payments, customer communication, automation and more. With Printavo, you’ll work smarter–not harder.

I had this interesting thought about print shops that’s worth expanding on.

Print shops are actually tech companies now.

They’re not manufacturers or finishers. They’re tech companies. This isn't a new idea – every company is a tech company now.

But it's obvious in 2022 that the most successful print shops straddle two worlds. They use software to improve the flow of information. And they use hardware to multiply the power of their workers. When a tool does not exist to solve a problem, they invent it. Even if it's just a spreadsheet.

This is very romantic, isn’t it? And I think it gets at the heart of the appeal of the print business these days. It’s for entrepreneurs, yes. But it’s also for tinkerers, experimenters, builders.


Print shop? Tech company!

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If I asked a print shop what they do, they’d probably say something like we print t-shirts.

Which is, all things considered, a great way to explain the business to a customer.

But I don’t think this is accurate or true to how time is actually spent in a print shop. Print shops don’t just print t-shirts. If we drew a timeline of an order, the actual printing part would be some minuscule portion of the entire process. The actual majority of time spent is on administrative tasks:

  • Gathering info from the customer
  • Approving artwork
  • Ordering items
  • Waiting for goods to arrive
  • Staging the goods
  • Burning screens
  • Setting up the press
  • Tearing down the press
  • Folding and bagging
  • Shipping

These tasks are where real time is spent and lost.

The actual printing part is…kind of an afterthought? But it’s where so much attention goes!

It is, of course, a make or break moment. But it’s not where to spend your time and energy on improvements. Look at that long list of stages that could be sped up, improved, changed, removed, and so on. Where is the opportunity? It’s not on press!

So what should you do with this knowledge? Start thinking like a tech company. How do they think? Let's show you.

What is a tech company anyway?

What kind of business are print shops?

Are they manufacturers? No, not quite. Maybe finishers? But that’s not really accurate, either.

Are they technology companies? I’d say that’s more accurate than manufacturer or finisher. They’re using lots of technology to get things done. And usually they have to customize that technology to fit their business.

What is a tech company, anyway? Wikipedia has a fairly succinct definition: “an electronics-based technology company, including [..] business relating to digital electronics, software, and internet-related services, such as e-commerce services.” Oh, okay. That's almost impossibly broad!

If 70% of print shops are using online stores (e-commerce) to sell merchandise, and virtually everything they do is managed and administered through software…doesn’t that sound like a tech company?

I mean, it doesn’t take a great deal of clairvoyance to see that print shops need software developers to help get behind the API.

Productivity...in the wrong places?

If you manage your print shop like it’s a manufacturing business, you will look for efficiencies in the manufacturing realm. Things like:

  • Faster presses and dryers
  • Better setup and breakdown times
  • Faster workers
  • Reliable printing techniques
  • …and other physical solutions.

These are great areas to optimize. But they can only be optimized so much until there are diminishing returns. Optimizing a very good process to make it perfect is not very likely! And the time, energy, and sheer willpower required to optimize processes that already work well is overwhelming. This is why our own Matt Marcotte advises shops that are refining their production techniques to consider how to save seconds instead of minutes. This is…extreme!

I can’t help but think that this is a kind of Sisyphean fantasy? Keep pushing that rock up that hill, and eventually you’ll have a perfect production system!

My suspicion here is that there are actually much bigger gains in efficiency, productivity, and profitability in easier-to-change areas.

What's an API?

You’ve probably heard or seen the term “API.” It stands for application programming interface. That doesn’t really explain much. But I can explain it in a very simple sentence: an API is one way to get two software applications to communicate.

Today, there are two kinds of people:

  • The people above the API. Normal people. Have to click the button on a website to get what they need.
  • The people behind the API. Computer people. They can access the plumbing behind websites and get to the good stuff: data.

Printavo’s API is how people have built truly powerful dashboards. It’s also how other companies have created custom applications that use Printavo’s data.

This is the vision for the future of Printavo: it’s a platform with lots of applications and ways to do things. And here's a teaser...there’s a significant update to the API brewing that will have a big impact.

The flow of information

I think about the flow of information through a print shop all of the time. Everyone needs clothing. But clothing is also a deeply personal thing.

The way I like my shirts to fit isn’t the way everyone wants their shirts to fit. So the information flow begins with customer preferences. How do you optimize capturing the info a customer wants to give you?

Shops solve this in a lot of novel ways, but one of my favorites comes from Brandt Fuqua at Graphic Disorder. They disconnected their phone and only do business through email. It’s an intentional bottleneck in the entire operation and…it’s kind of a brilliant place to put that bottleneck?

It’s a top-down control device that only lets certain customers and certain work into the shop. Does this sound like a manufacturer that builds anything anyone wants…or a tech company that carefully chooses its next targets and projects?

The flow of information is crucial internally, too. There are a lot of details to this work. Pantone colors, garment details, sizes, quantities, techniques, print placement, artwork, and so on.

One size fits all...fits none

People often ask us why we haven’t implemented a very specific solution that would fit in their business. “Why don’t you track inventory” or “this feature should work a certain way.” All of these requests are very legitimate. But what we’ve found throughout the years is that a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t fit anyone.

Let me give you a very specific and interesting example from the Power Scheduler rollout.

For a long time, shops have asked us to add pre-made Print Locations to Printavo. This makes sense on one level: there’s a fairly standard set of Print Locations. But on the other hand, we’ve actually found that there’s really no standard vocabulary for where people put prints on garments. Every shop does it a little differently!

So a very clever shop figured out that they could add a Step to Power Scheduler that’s just their most common Print Locations. Would we have thought of this? No, probably not! And that’s why (one reason) that we try to avoid very prescriptive things like pre-made Print Locations. Now of course you can agree or disagree with this philosophy - but it’s worth explaining.

Software is a little bit like baseball caps? I mean, we could tell you: hey, we have developed the perfect fitted cap. It expands to every head size! But invariably some people will have big heads, some people little heads, and most in-between. It’s just better if we give you an adjustable cap. But this metaphor is still a big stretch. If we’re using the hat metaphor, we’d have to be honest: there wouldn’t be a lot of agreement over how to wear a hat, much less how it should fit.

This problem crops up in other areas of life at Printavo, too. For instance, a lot of people have asked us to build them a pricing matrix. But you can’t do this without getting very specific to the individual business.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable setting the same prices in two different towns, much less two different businesses. In an industry this diverse, weird, and all-over-the-place, it’s not smart to think that you can develop something that will work optimally for everyone.

Build it! Ship it!

We’ve seen this model work for us at Printavo: build it fast, ship it fast, learn lessons and live to build something better tomorrow.

Several shops built custom software modules to help with a specific problem in their business. Lo and behold: it turns out a bunch of other shops have the same problems.

These custom-built solutions become really valuable tools. DecoFlo helps with check-in. PrintFlo lets you sync Shopify orders with Printavo. Zapier lets you freestyle and connect (almost) whatever you want.

So what do tech companies…do?

  • Retrospectives: the good, the bad, the ugly. Be honest! Here's how.
  • Work on the flow, not the product. Worry about the process more than the t-shirt.
  • Constant iteration. Never settle just because something works "well enough." Check out Floodway's feed for examples!
  • “Ship it” mentality. Nothing is perfect. Stop waiting. Even a bad solution is a thousand times better than none.
  • They use contractors. If you aren't a tech expert, get help! There are so many freelance contractors available to help you: Fiver is just one place to start.

It’s one level of competency to think about the products your business makes.

It’s another level of competency to work on the quality of the flow of products through your business.

Tech companies have the luxury of working on products that aren’t tied to the real world. They don't print t-shirts. So they get to focus on the how. How things are made, communicated, completed, and so on.

They’re focused on the flow of their projects. This is kind of like drawing a diagram of the flow of products through a shop and saying: hey, look, we can work on the products…or we can work on the flow.

And guess what? Print shops have this luxury too. The flow is the way forward.

Thumbnail image courtesy of New Duds.


Next Post: Power Scheduler (Beta)

About Printavo

Printavo is simple shop management software. We help you streamline your business, keep jobs moving forward and your team on the same page.

Scheduling, quoting, approvals, payments, customer communication, automation and more. With Printavo, you’ll work smarter–not harder.