You know the digital revolution is serious when business cards go high tech.
London-based Moo.com, a mail-order printing company, is chiseling out a compelling small-business niche: customized business cards and other marketing material made in small batches. You can run as few as 50 cards, each printed with its own image or information.
I tested the service. Our resident technophobe, Nick, and I designed and created a set of cards. My verdict? Moo.com cards are perfectly reasonable. But expect a reasonable-quality hit compared with high-run, traditional, custom-designed and -printed cards and collateral.
In other words, Moo.com can work if you don't ask too much of it.
If there is one thing that drives small-business people nuts, it is wasted marketing collateral. As much as I love what my designers create for my business cards, stationery, letterhead and the like, the practicality of printing has traditionally meant I had to order far more of these things than I ever could use.
Most quality printing -- not the stuff from FedEX Kinko's (STOCK QUOTE: FDX) or UPS (STOCK QUOTE: UPS), but printing processes that add real value to your business -- still relies on some form of offset print technology that is centuries old. Either through the use of movable type, by hand, chemical etching or other means, one part of a hard surface is raised or lowered, ink is applied to that surface and paper or fabric is pressed on the whole mess.
Whatever sticks to the paper is what gets printed. The result can be elegant. No business can succeed without great printed material. But there is no getting around the time it took to make the plates, push in all that gloppy ink and roll it on all that sill paper.
So small runs of business cards are about 500. I usually wind up having to buy 1,000. And forget brochures and marketing material: 1,000 of those suckers is considered a reasonable run. I have had to deal with 5,000 of these things time and again, far more than I or anybody else will ever use. I still have pads of branded paper floating around from my first job 20 years ago. And my mother has stationery from her first job 40 years before that.
But finally, digital technology is changing that.
New digital printing processes, which use technologies similar to how an image is rendered in a laser or ink jet printer, are beginning to approach the quality and batch sizes of traditional offset printers. Major digital print outfits like H-P, Agfa and Kodak are pushing the bounds of what digital printing methods can achieve. And the results can be stunning. Take the recent DRUPA print trade event. This show is the Olympics of the printing business, where every four years print's biggest players meet to get a look at the future of their business. This summer the event was in Dusseldorf, Germany, and there were significant improvements in all aspects of digital printing: from prepress to print to processing.
"Digital technologies have entered the workplace and are changing what is possible," says Richard Moross, founder and CEO of MOO.com. "We built this business to bring those tools down to the smallest possible businesses or even individuals."
Moo.com offers a satisfying, professional experience. All business is done at the clean, well laid-out company Website. Users are prompted, akin to many Web-based business offerings, with several simple options: cards, mini-cards, stickers and several others. We chose cards, because Nick needed those since he joined us earlier this year. And creating them is simple. Upload up to 50 different pictures, then crop, zoom and adjust to suit. In our case, that was our company graphics and if you don't have those, you can use one of the thousands of designs that Moo.com provides. They are perfectly fine for basic use.
Then the service prompts for text and layout scheme. We found nine templates. We could then tweak alignment, colors, card stock and some other basic features. Then we are asked to lock in a design and file it on the Web. Nick spent all of 40 minutes on the full process. And I can easily see us making cards in half that time once we get familiar with the tools.
Now, there are major limits to Moo. First, you are working in a limited design environment similar to early HTML editors. There are limited fonts, colors and layouts. Picture uploads are also a pain. Moo.com puts strict rules on sizes and layout. Nick had to do some major editing with an image manipulation program to finagle the sizes. And the end results are clearly a step below true custom printing. Edging was a bit ratty. Image resolution wasn't perfect. And the card stock was a bit low-end for my taste.
But still, for the price, convenience and low-run amount, Moo is attractive. And my bet is that, with a little bit of tweaking on our end, I could get better results than our first try.
Even better, the company expects that within the next year, quality will dramatically improve. Sometime in 2010, Moo.com will offer true first-quality business collateral in super-customized small batches.
The business card will never be the same.