Davis Siksnans, CEO and Co-Founder, Printful
Success On Demand
How Printful co-founder Davis Siksnans rose to the top by helping entrepreneurs custom print and ship products with greater speed and ease.
Davis Siksnans’ motto as an entrepreneur has always been, “If you can’t find it, build it.” It’s led him to some fascinating and quirky pursuits, from building a business that sells customized friendship bracelets to launching an ecommerce store that creates motivational posters for startups.
Having spent much of his career working at a startup incubator, coming up with ideas and helping to bring them into reality, much of Siksnans’ expertise has involved smoothing out and speeding up that business-building experience. He’s especially excelled at improving the fulfillment process, allowing businesses to whip up clever ecommerce product ideas and then ship them out to eager customers in a heartbeat.
While not all of his ventures took off, they were critical stepping stones to Siksnans building his most successful business yet—Printful. This leading drop-shipping, fulfillment, and printing business has mastered the process of creating on-demand ecommerce products. As a result, Printful has grown exponentially since its launch six years ago and now has a 500-person team across the U.S., Mexico, and Europe.
Survival of the Fittest
Long before his days as Printful’s CEO and co-founder, Siksnans always knew he would end up doing something in tech. Fascinated by technology from a young age, he taught himself to code, saved up his allowance to purchase his first computer, and built custom websites for his friends and neighbors. In the process, he realized he had a knack for turning ideas into businesses.
So it came as no surprise when Siksnans secured his first job as an IT administrator with Draugiem Group, a startup incubator and one of the most exciting technology companies to work for in his home country of Latvia.
Over the course of 15 years, Draugiem Group funded over 100 business ideas. Today, only 12 of these businesses remain, which is the nature of entrepreneurship, Siksnans says. What makes Draugiem’s model unique is that it doesn’t source ideas from outsiders—only from its own founders and employees. This means that everyone at the company has the opportunity to come up with the next big idea.
“At Draugiem, if you do good work and gather trust, you’re given more opportunities to step up in your career,” Siksnans says. “I was given the chance to work on business ideas based on the fact that the founders thought I was doing a good job.”
Timing was also on Siksnans’ side, as Draugiem Group was just starting to focus on the US market for the first time. He had previously completed an exchange program in the United States for one year and was familiar with the market, so Siksnans officially began his career as an entrepreneur.
Take Your Vitamins
After experimenting with a variety of ideas under the banner of Draugiem Group, Siksnans hit gold with Startup Vitamins, a company that sells, no not vitamins, but motivational posters.
Siksnans and his team initially came up with the concept when they moved into a new office space that had ample wall space and wanted to put up some posters. But they couldn’t find any designs they liked. That’s when his motto of, “If we can’t find it, let’s build it” came into play, and Siksnans decided to launch a Shopify store to meet this need.
Initially, the Shopify store sold posters with motivational sayings such as “Life is short. Don’t be lazy.” He and his team started off with one printer in the Los Angeles home of one of the founders, which made it convenient to produce posters on-demand and was also low-cost.
After seeing promising growth, Siksnans decided to expand by taking on the biggest category in ecommerce—apparel. He liked selling posters because they could be easily printed on demand and didn’t require inventory. He wanted to replicate that model with apparel, so Startup Vitamins started working with a fulfillment partner that could produce on-demand products.
This turned out to be a horrible experience. The fulfillment partner’s website was clunky; it took one-to-two weeks to fulfill orders; the quality of products was subpar; and there was no public API—no way to automate the orders that were coming into Startup Vitamins.
That got Siksnans thinking.
Siksnans realized that there was a significant gap when it came to services that could produce on-demand and high-quality products at a reasonable speed. He also recognized the lack of a powerful API that could integrate with ecommerce platforms like Etsy, Shopify, and Storenvy. He decided to test this theory, and that’s how the idea for Printful came to life.
The key difference was that, with such an API, his company could allow clients to automatically receive and process orders for their online business instead of serving as the middleman.
“When we launched Printful in 2013, we didn’t even own the domain printful.com because we didn’t know if this idea was going to work or not,” Siksnans says. “Maybe it would fail and we would have to refocus. We used Startup Vitamins’ mailing list as our first marketing channel to push out Printful’s services because our customers overlapped—startups that were likely to be open to using print-on-demand in their respective niches.”
Printful found product-market fit immediately. Its combination of drop shipping (when an ecommerce store purchases inventory from a third party and has it shipped directly to the consumer) with a custom print API and other services made it easy for anybody to sell posters, t-shirts, canvases, and other merchandise, seamlessly. As a result, Printful made around $800 in revenue in its first month, then $1,600 the next, and the business only kept growing from there. In under six months, Printful had become larger than Startup Vitamins.
Lessons on Scaling
Since its launch, Printful has seen impressive growth. The company now has a team of more than 500, locations in four geographies, 6.83 million orders fulfilled to date, and $540 million in products sold by its customers.
Of course, with growth comes growing pains, which Siksnans says has been one of the toughest aspects of his job. He has turned to certain resources to help him navigate the challenges around scaling.
“I recommend the book Scaling Up by Verne Harnish,” Siksnans says. “Whenever I see a person in management struggling with growing pains, I give them this book and discuss it with them. It contains so many great practices and tactics, and it shows that this is a normal process that many companies have dealt with.”
Siksnans also emphasizes the importance of collaborating across cultures. At Printful, they make a point of educating team members about cultural differences. The company also invests in resources to make sure its employees have the opportunity to travel between Latvia and the United States to conduct knowledge and culture transfers.
While it’s important to acknowledge the differences among Printful’s various locations, Siksnans believes it’s critical to maintain a thread of consistency throughout every employee’s experience.
He once sat in on an onboarding process for an employee in Riga, Latvia and noticed it lacked many of the helpful components found in the US process, so he connected both HR departments to make sure they were added. That’s why Siksnans stays involved in all of Printful’s HR processes—from running new hire trainings for employees once a month to being involved in the recruiting process.
Siksnans has several thoughtful predictions for the future of the print-on-demand and drop-shipping industry.
For starters, he envisions decreased reliance on advertising. As Facebook ads become more expensive over time, Siksnans believes it will become increasingly important to build microbrands. This means becoming less reliant on advertisements and turning more to influencers, who have powerful audiences on social media and promote products organically to their user bases.
Siksnans also anticipates potential policy changes around shipping. Consumers are already demanding faster shipping speeds as companies like Amazon set a new standard. He’s keeping an eye on what happens with the Universal Postal Union, the UN agency that coordinates postal policies among different nations. They’re experiencing many issues, for example, the fact that it’s cheaper to ship a mug from China to New York than it is to ship a mug within New York. As a result, some countries are already taking steps to limit the influx of cheap drop-shipped goods coming from other countries.
Finally, Siksnans is focused on understanding ecommerce algorithms. A growing base of users is leaning into newer marketplaces such as Etsy, which have less advanced ranking algorithms to figure out than sources like Amazon or Facebook advertisements. As a result, Siksnans is noticing a lot of people finding success by learning the ins and outs of various internet marketplaces.
Regardless of which direction the market goes, Siksnans believes Printful is well positioned to continue growing. All of this success came as a result of him identifying a need and deciding to go for it—a mindset he believes all founders should emulate.
“I have a lot of people asking me when is the right time to start,” Siksnans says. “There’s no right time when someone is ready to start anything new. You will never feel ready, so just start now.”
Davis Siksnans’ 4 Tips on Scaling Company Culture
- Hire people who love to learn. Siksnans picked up this concept from the book How to Castrate a Bull by Dave Hitz. The basic premise is that your business won’t scale if your team won’t scale with it. That’s why it’s critical to look for employees who are eager to learn because they’ll be more willing to grow with the company and embrace the changes that come with it.
- Stay aligned with your values. Initiative, integrity, and experimentation. These are Printful’s company values, and Siksnans ensures they’re embedded into the DNA of the organization. He does this by weaving the values into the onboarding process, making sure they’re conveyed across every location, and working with managers to help them embody the company culture.
- Prioritize culture fit. While it may be tempting to hire the most qualified candidate, Siksnans recommends putting culture fit first. “Don’t hire people who don’t embody your culture. I’ve had interviews with managers who met the professional criteria but weren’t a culture fit. It almost hurts to pass on those candidates, but I believe it’s more important to find someone who fits on a cultural level than on a professional level,” Siksnans says.
- Encourage cross-team collaboration. It’s easy for holes to emerge in cross-team communication as a company scales. That’s why Printful has a process of having new hires meet with people outside of their own department to ask questions about their roles. For instance, a new marketer might meet with the finance department to learn more about their day-to-day functions. This is a helpful practice to break down barriers and improve intra-team collaboration.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Sophia Lee
- How his first job as an IT administrator at startup incubator Draugiem Group nurtured his entrepreneurial spirit
- How the motto of “if you can’t find, build it” led to Siksnans’ first successful business idea, Startup Vitamins
- Why ecommerce and the on-demand model were appealing to Siksnans
- How a bad experience with a fulfillment partner led to the launch of Printful
- The savvy marketing tactics used to test product-market fit for Printful
- The six-year journey to becoming a 500+ person team across four global locations
- Which books Siksnans recommend for startups experience growing pains
- The top lessons learned on scaling company culture
- Why it’s important to collaborate across multiple cultures and offices
- Siksnans’ thoughts on the future of the print-on-demand and drop shipping industry
Full Transcript of Podcast with Davis Siksnans
Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Davis: Well, this job was my first job ever.
Nathan: I guess, yeah, how’d you find yourself doing the work you’re doing today? Take us back?
Davis: You know, if you look at the history I’ve always sort of been interesting in IT and technology. From the age of 13, actually, had bought my first computer with the allowance I saved up and some part-time work. Self-taught a little bit of basics . I began initially coding websites for my friends and neighbours. Actually, the first website I built for a friend. Just a basic business card type of website. Then, I participated also in the shadow days that we do here in Europe that you can sort of look how people in IT work, and IT product managers. Maybe unlike my peers I always knew that I will work in IT and this is the industry for me.
But, I quickly realised that to be a good software developer you need a bit of a talent. I was always more interested not just coding a beautiful website, or a product but making that tool or product into a business. Something that you charge money for. So, I quickly refocused from just being general interested in coding for fun to making things in IT that can become a business.
Nathan: Interesting. So, what was your first business?
Davis: Well, you know I started in IT when I was, again, I guess maybe in my teens as well. But when I turn 18 I actually move from my small hometown to the capital of Latvia, in Riga. I joined, which was at the time and still is one of the most exciting group of IT companies to work for and which Printful’s now part of, DraugiemGroup.com and I joined the company when I was … The group of companies when I was 18 because my cousin who were partnering already working there and referred me into a new opening that was opening up in this new quickly growing company. I was initially actually an IT administrator. Only later than started working on the few new business ideas.
Perhaps I have to take a little back about what is Draugiem Group, but-
Nathan: Yeah, how do you spell it? Is it Dragon Group? Or Draugiem Group?
Davis: It’s D-R-A-U-G-I-E-M, and it means for friends in Latvian. The initial idea is because one of the founders, who’s also a founder of Printful, took the idea of Friendster, the first ever social network, and adapt it to the local Latvian market. That quickly went wider and grew. But, the group has launched over 100 business ideas over the course of 15 years. I’ve been with the group for 10 years. I worked on what I just told that I was inspired about by taking an idea and turning into a real business. Most of these ideas didn’t fail because … Most of these ideas did fail because that’s how entrepreneurship works. 100 business ideas over the course of 15 years, and 12 of them really remain if you go on DraugiemGroup.com website. Printful is now the largest one. But, before Printful I worked on several others. I think only DeskTime still remains part of Draugiem Group to this day.
But it was not my first one. I think the first one, apart from the social network itself, was an idea called FriendlyBracelets.com, which is a silly idea really where you can order a customised friendship bracelet online. But it was our first idea that was geared towards the United States market. We learned about selling things in eCommerce online. Ultimately selling bracelets online never became a really large thing. I think at best we crossed about $10,000 per months revenue. So, we ended up discontinuing that business as part of the group. But it was a very valuable learning experience, and a stepping stone to other ideas that eventually lead to Printful.
Nathan: Interesting. So, this group when you joined, you joined as an IT administrator. So when you say that they’ve launched over 100 ideas in the past 15 years, did you launch an idea while you were an IT administrator on the side, which was not part of the group? Or they openly encouraged, I guess, intreprenuership and they constantly had what you would call maybe perhaps hackathons constantly every quarter within the company and that’s where these ideas come from? Or how does that work exactly?
Davis: Well, a lot of that has happening organically. There’s no defined process. But generally, when other employees in the group ask me how it works is first you join a group and you show that you can do good work. In my case I was an IT administrator, in other case whatever you are you show you do good work and there’s this, I guess, how Shopify also causes the concept of trust . You know, you do good work and the trust with you increases among the group and you are given more options to apply for new positions. Step up in a career, and I guess kind of the best one is that you eventually can just chose whatever businesses in the group you work on, or whatever idea you work on. So, eventually I was given that opportunity most probably based on the fact that the founders of the group thought that I was doing a pretty good job. Then I get to work on these several ideas.
Also, the timing work that I joined about the time that group went through this change that no more will do the business ideas focused on local markets in Latvia or the Baltic States, but now we’re going to do increasingly ideas that are geared towards United States market and I was actually … I did study in US on exchange for one year. That helped me also to put in the forefront as a person who can work on these ideas geared towards the United States market.
Nathan: Got you. So, you would say that the group is kind of like an incubator, in a way, right?
Davis: Yeah. Group is an incubator that doesn’t accept outside ideas because the founders in many cases have their own ideas. Or the employees. So, for instance when you look at the history of Printful it used to be called Idea Bits, not Printful. Why Idea Bits because we needed a name for the company, the company behind it that can house many different ideas from various aspects of internet technology under one roof. For a longer period of time it was kind of all jumbled into this one legal entity. When Printful started working out we actually branched out ideas that was part of it, like DeskTime.com. Now it’s its own legal entity separate.
But there was a time when we were launching so many business ideas at the same time that instead of just making another legal entity each time we just run it through our Idea Bits bucket.
Nathan: So, talk to me around Startup Vitamins. Because is that how Printful came about? Like, you guys launched a brand, like a physical product brand. Like, I know Startup Vitamins, like many of the cool startups and some of the larger startups have your posters. Please tell me if I’m wrong or right, is it what happened is you guys were running Startup Vitamins where you did all these incredible startup posters, and merch with quotes and stuff. Then you identified an opportunity to turn a cost centre into a profit centre where all the manufacturing and the supply chain and logistics, you basically opened that up to the public and now that’s the main business. Is that exactly kind of what happened, or?
Davis: In a nutshell yes. But let me give you more colour around it. Remember, we were launching several business ideas at a time. So, Startup Vitamins was the most successful idea that proceeded Printful. It was all through this Idea Bits bucket. DeskTime was part of it, several other business was part of it. So, Startup Vitamins we actually got an idea for that business because we moved to a new office space in Riga, Latvia and we moved into this building that had ample wall space. It was actually built as an art gallery. So we wanted to put some posters on the walls and we couldn’t find posters who’s designs use all the quotes we liked. So, naturally we thought if we can’t find it, let’s build it. We put up a Shopify store and Startup Vitamins was a Shopify store and we designed around 12 poster we liked on posters.
One of the founders of Printful, Lars, moved to LA a year prior. He bought a poster printer, put it in his home. Because we liked posters because you only need a poster printer and paper. There’s no inventory. Like you get an order for poster, you just print it. That is something that we were able to do in this home setting of a founder, right. But then Startup Vitamins is growing and working because we worked … We always marketing and other aspects. We wanted to grow it even further. The biggest category on internet that is sold the most in eCommerce is apparel. So we wanted to expand Startup Vitamins into apparel products, right.
We really liked the aspect of posters that it didn’t require inventory. So we were looking somebody who can do it on demand just like we did the posters, and integrate with our Startup Vitamin Shopify store. We actually tried a business out in 2012, but it was a horrible experience because the website was clunky. They took over a week, or even two weeks, to fulfil an order. The quality was subpar. But most importantly being internet and tech background they didn’t have an API. There was no way to automate orders that were coming in on Startup Vitamins to go into their system, and then for a tracking number to come back.
So, just like we launched Startup Vitamins because we needed it that is how we got an insight for Printful. That we cannot find a service that will do print on demand many print products at reasonable speed quality. And most importantly API. So that’s how we launched Printful, and that’s how we got an idea for Printful. You know, we will celebrate the sixth birthday this year. We celebrate the sixth birthday in July because in 2013 in July we got the article about the launch in Tech Brunch. It said from the Startup Vitamins team a new service has launched.
So, Startup Vitamins was a little more well known, obviously, at that time. When we launched it, it was good that we did have these other businesses around because we used Startup Vitamins com mailing list as our first, one of the first marketing channels to push out the service. It was actually a good channel to use because the Startup Vitamins customers were startups and technology companies who are very open to starting print on demand business in their respective niche.
Nathan: Hmm. Interesting, yeah. Because we got you guys to produce all of our Foundr merch. We link it up to the Shopify store and you guys produce all the merch that we send out to our customers. So it’s a really good solution. We don’t use it to, I guess, profit per se. But we like to send out tonnes of different cool merch to our audience, or our best customers, et cetera.
So, I’m curious is Startup Vitamins still going? If so, how comparable is it to the Printful business? Can you give our audience kind of a insight into how big Pritnful is? Any notable numbers, revenue, customers? I know that, I read somewhere that you guys got to three million revenue in the first 18 months with Printful. Anything you can share just for clarity around the size of the businesses?
Davis: Okay. So, when we launch Printful in 2013 I remember that we didn’t even own the domain name printful.com. Because it was one of the several many business we launch all the time. We didn’t know it’s going to work. Maybe it’s all going to fail and we going to refocus on Startup Vitamins again, or another business. But, luckily it started working. People talk about having a product market fit, I think we almost immediately had it because the revenue was in there from the first months. I think we did $800 in the first month, $1,600 in the next month, and just kept growing really quickly. So, in less than six months Printful was larger than Startup Vitamins.
Another aspect that helped really Printful to grow really quickly is also partnerships and eCommerce integrations. Because Startup Vitamins used to be on Shopify it was kind of natural for our first integration to also be the Shopify. Also what helped was Shopify had a really good API to integrate with. You know, we made our integration really work really well with Shopify. They also had a app store much like Apples app store. So it helped many new customers discover Printful.
So, we were growing quickly, and all those other businesses were sort of decoupled from our main business. But we kept StartupVitamins.com around as a legacy business. We use our own API, sort of eat our own dog food. For instance, we have a new service called Warehousing and Fulfilment we launched two years ago. Before it was available to anybody else we tested it out on StartupVitamins.com. So it’s actually good that we still have StartupVitamins.com because we can sort of test certain things out and when we blog and try to recommend certain marketing techniques etc for eCommerce we can actually take from that experience that we have with StartupVitamins.com.
StartupVitamins.com is probably 0.00 something of total of Printful right now. But, we don’t spend a lot of time on it. But mostly we use it for testing new stuff that we want to make available later for Printful.com customers.
Regarding your question about metrics we can give right now our team is more than 500 people globally. There’s four locations where we fulfil orders from. We fulfilled more than six million orders. Couple of weeks ago we reached 10 million items printed, and it took us less than a year to double from five million items printed. We invested over $17 million dollars in printing equipment, on state of the art printing equipment and our customers have sold on retail, or their gross merchandise sales, more than $350 million over the course of, what, six years. That’s all growing rapidly.
Revenue numbers I cannot give right now. But, we hope to release some possibly in a month or so. We are going to release the top line revenue numbers hopefully in a month or so. We’re coordinating that, but right now I cannot give you exact revenue numbers on Printful’s revenue. But I can give all those other numbers and you can reference them on Printful.com/about and they are some numbers there.
Nathan: Okay. Awesome, yeah. No worries. It’s just always interesting for our audience to get a true understanding of scale and volume, and size of business. So, you guys are obviously a clear market leader in the drop shipping space. One thing I’m curious around is you said you have 500 people with four different offices. Where are the different offices, and are you guys bootstrapped, or venture funded?
Davis: The Printful definitely only needed money to be started. But, the founders had money from these other businesses, including Draugiem.lv the social network, that put up the first capital to buy the initial equipment, et cetera. So we are bootstrapped as a business. Now we are not dependent on the rest of the group companies to support Printful because we have turned profit. If you do not want to raise money, or don’t raise money being profitable is the only way to survive, really. So that’s what we’ve been doing for the last six years.
Regarding where our four locations are, our first location was in Los Angeles. We actually changed a couple of locations there and moved in our current office space there in 2015. In 2016 we open up Charlotte, North Carolina to bring products faster to East Coast customers. In 2017 we open up a fulfilment centre in Riga. Remember, all this time we always had an office in Riga where our software developers worked, and many other teams. In 2018 we open up the small cut and sell facility in Tijuana, Mexico to help with our active wear products such as leggings and production there. Because of the labour availability of so many labour operators there.
But we change a couple of office spaces in Riga as well. I moved into my office, and we actually have a smaller office in another small city called Cesis outside of the capital. We hope to open up new facilities around the globe in the future, too.
Nathan: Yeah. Interesting. So, would you say out of that 500 staff, like, 75% of those are people working in the fulfilment centres?
Davis: About 300 people work for us in North America, and about 200 work in Latvia.
Nathan: Yep. Got you.
Davis: I’d say about 300 work in fulfilment related roles.
Nathan: Yep. Okay. Interesting. When it comes to the group you’re the co-founder and CEO of Printful. How does it work, kind of like, from a leadership standpoint with the incubator? Like the incubator company, I’m not very good with pronunciation but how does that work from a leadership team side?
Davis: Well, all these companies are legally independent. They’re all being grouped as more of a marketing concept. There’s no holding company that owns shares in all these 12 other companies. So there’s two founders, Lauris Liberts and Agris Tamanis which you see on Draugiem website. They are the co-founders of the entire group, and shareholders in all these other companies. One of them just happen to be Printful. So their stragtegy instead of entrepreneur is that once the business idea is defined and started each of these 12 companies actually has professional management. So, I’m the CEO and I would report to the shareholders. Obviously, Lauris maybe weekly. Then we have board meetings. So that’s kind of about it. Each company has their own separate management team that can manage the company so to say. Obviously, Lauris is involved in kind of the main decisions of the strategy, budgeting. But, in day-to-day is executed by professional C-level suite.
Nathan: I see. When it comes to drop shipping I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the landscape. Because, I’m very familiar with this market and there’s a lot of people doing drop shipping and Facebook is shutting down their ads. It’s getting very, very competitive, very, very crowded market. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of the landscape.
Davis: Yeah. It’s true that Facebook advertising is getting more expensive over time. So, one thing that we’re doing is actually trying to invest more into premium products, or products you can sell at the higher retail price. For instance, while a t-shirt would retail around $25 our leggings are often retailed at around $75. And you have a much bigger margin in that product so you can spend more on Facebook advertising.
So, they will always be products that have enough margin in their. So, we’re aggressively expending our product offering. But, now the asset that becomes more important is actually building small brands, micro brands in this case. So, to not just work, or be reliant on Facebook advertising. So, there’s a segment of our Plentiful customer that has always been a large customer base but now it’s becoming more important. Those are influencers who have audience on social media, like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram. They promote products organically to their user base not via ads. So, that thing has been around for a long time, and that is still growing.
So, I think because of advertising costs becoming more bigger that audience is going to become more important for us and they will continue to strive also in the future. Another aspect we see in this market, and also a lot of drop shipping products are being shipped from places like China. I think over time the consumers will start to demand faster shipping speeds. You know, that is already happening because of Amazon Prime et cetera. So, I think we’re pretty good position because we have local fulfilment operations both in Europe and United States for that.
Also, it is always unknown what is going to happen to the world wide postal union laws where it is cheaper to ship one mug from China to New York than it is to ship a much across the street in New York. So, there has been a lot of talk about in United States in the current administration to pull out of that agreement and we have to monitor this situation what happens. There’s other countries around the world who’s taken steps to limit the influx of cheap drop shipped, or other wise goods coming from third part countries. Like, Sweden has taken steps to tax that because it’s just too cheap to ship it. It’s also just genearly not good for the environment when the product has to travel that far when it can be sourced locally.
So those are some of the more recent trends I’m seeing in print on demand and drop shipping industry lately.
Nathan: Hmm. It’s interesting you talk about the importance of building a brand, and then also the rise of the influencers. I think that’s a very, very … Both of those are very, very interesting topics for me in particular. You do see a lot of, I guess, people promoting these drop shipping style courses. It’s really easy to get started, you don’t have to hold the stock. You use an incredible service like Printful, it’s easy to plug and play with Shopify and then you just start running ads. You know, you get these kind of, I guess you get performance based marketers which essentially are really, really good at Facebook ads and they’re basically just drop shipping product.
But, it’s not really a real business. I think one thing that’s really important is when it comes to building a business you need to build a sustainable business. It’s not sustainable. You need to build what you would call a micro brand. I think that’s really important.
Another thing I find interesting is how you mentioned a growing category in your market of customers that you serve is the influencers that want to use a service like Printful to create merch. I think that is an interesting trend that I’m noticing that more often, more than ever there’s this rise of people that are influencers. Especially YouTube or Instagramers. Especially YouTubers. It seems that the way that they seem to monetize is not by creating physical products, or creating tools or apps or businesses per se. They tend to … Like, majority tend to just create merch. I think they make a lot of money from the looks of it selling their merch, right?
Davis: Well, they certainly make more money selling any kind of product than they do from YouTube advertising.
Davis: But, another trend I wanted to mention as well, when we talked about micro brands and Facebook advertising more in the recent years Printful has integrated with several marketplaces. Amazon, Etsy Store, and things like that. On these platforms instead of figuring out how Facebook algorithm works you need to figure out how the eCommerce marketplace is ranking algorithms for it, right? So, you know there’s so many people who are successful on Amazon so we see a growing base of users who use Amazon integration with Printful. We also are more on the newer marketplaces like Etsy where people are … You know, people who shop on Etsy have different sort of expectations than you should shop on Amazon. They’re fine receiving product later. They’re fine with the higher product price because they are looking for niche products, right. And Etsy’s marketplace algorithms are easier and less advanced than more established marketplaces like Amazon. So, we see a lot of people being successful by learning the ins and outs of various internet marketplaces because of the growing cost of Facebook advertising.
Nathan: Hmm. Interesting. I agree, it is a great way to get started going to a large pool of customers that are trained to buy and tapping into their customer base on a marketplace. The only problem that you have to be careful of is you are building a business on somebody else’s land. If they decide to take that away from you it can be very, very risky. I’ve personally experienced this myself.
Davis: That’s true. But, you know, taking from Startup Vitamins experience we sold multichannel. I think that’s also… So, you don’t only just sell on the marketplace you sell on all your own website to minimise that risk.
Nathan: Yep. I agree, 110%. I think you nailed it. It’s really about diversifying that risk. So, Davis, I have a few questions around kind of managing the scale. Like, having 500 people over the space of six years that’s very impressive growth. How have you been able to manage that scale in terms of hiring the right people, getting the right people on board, but then at the same time you might even have to recycle a leadership team because you’ve moved to a next bracket.
Davis: Right. That’s true. Yeah. It’s been one of the most challenging think things at Printful. My job is a lot about hiring and the team, and growing the team while previously I was very involved in day-to-day of marketing or software development. A couple of suggestions I would say try hiring people who love to learn. Because a lot of people who love to learning new things they are more willing to scale with the company. Because your business won’t scale if your team won’t scale with it. So we trying to target those type of people in our hiring and recruiting process.
It is true that sometimes a person who was a manager of a certain thing as a company scale went up just didn’t work out and they had to be replaced. There’s this concept that I actually read in the book How to Castrate the Bull, it’s a very weird name of the book. But the book is about scaling of this American company that was in Cloud space. When your company’s scaling so much that you can just hire a person over on the next new management layer of that person, and that person can … Then the scale can continue to manage the smaller team. So you have that opportunity if your business is growing really, really fast. But sometimes it doesn’t work out and you’re just part as friends, and it’s understandable just a business outgrew the person. That happens as well.
Another book that I would really recommend for somebody struggling with scaling the company is called Scaling Up. I forgot what was the author, but just read Scaling Up.
Nathan: It was Verne Harnish.
Davis: Yes, Verne Harnish. Whenever is every a person or a management person starting to struggle some of these growing pains I give them this book and we talk about the concepts in this book. Many show that they can adapt and learn. They just sometimes need to be explained that this is normal and many companies before us have dealt with this. So, there might not be an exact plan how you tackle this, but there’s so many great practises and tactics you can learning about scaling up. So we took a couple from the book.
Nathan: Yeah. I love it. Yeah, I’m a big fan of the Scaling Up model and framework. Big, big fan. Okay. Awesome.
Nathan: Talk to me around, I guess, scaling the culture across the different offices? How have you done that when you guys are very Latvian heavy. You know, Eastern Europe, that’s totally different culture to United States.
Davis: Right. Actually, I wrote my Bachelor thesis about things because, and how teams actually coordinate when they are on different continents, different countries. Culture aspect is one part of it. So, we try to identify the culture differences between Latvian and American culture, and just actually educate both cultures about differences so they recognise. For instance, like Latvian’s always are translating what they say in Latvian into English and they often sound too direct in United States, which might be received as impolite. So, I explain to them Latvians don’t mean to be impolite. It sometimes just comes off like that because of the translation and other aspects. Then they are more understanding of that. That is just one example.
But, we actually spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on business trips between United States and Latvia for several people to go over and give knowledge transfer, give culture transfer. There’s a couple of people who actually moved from Latvia to work in United States to facilitate that permanently. I travel there maybe four to five times per year, and we do all hands meetings in our facilities in North America and Latvia to make sure we always stay on the same page.
It used to be that our company didn’t have a more defined onboarding process, now it has a pretty good onboarding process. Actually, just today I was sitting in onboarding process with a new employee in Riga and I noticed how that onboarding process is different than United States. It’s fine it’s a little different, but it didn’t include all the good things that the United States onboarding process had. So I connected both HR departments and say like, “Okay, let’s make sure these things are the same.” When we can actually do it the same in the United States and Europe we should try doing it.
So, it means paying a lot of attention to these things. The culture, and onboarding, and making sure we take in the differences of various cultures but also try to do it similarly. Today we just learned that we will do a event for our Spanish speaking people because Printful recently hired a couple of Spanish marketers and we are translating the website to be available in Spanish. So, we will celebrate the Spanish culture at our Printful’s offices a little bit. Probably is going to be around food, and other aspects but that’s another way how we can be more inclusive when we have people from all kinds of nationalities working for us.
Nathan: Interesting. What about the culture that is the DNA within Printful itself? How do you scale that across country, not so much the local culture.
Davis: Well, we kept the main sort of relish of culture. We kept the Draugiem, Group businesses initiative, integrity, and experiments. It is talked about in the onboarding process to make sure it’s the same across the different organisations. But, you really have to work with your managers for them to embody that culture. You know, and also not hire a lot of people who do not meet that culture. Like last week I had a couple of interviews for people who would be in management position at Printful, and they met all the criteria professional almost perfectly. But they just were not a culture fit. Even though it almost hurts that we really need to hire that person we decided to pass and look for a person who fits both professionally and culturally. I would say a person who fits better culturally is more important than they fit on a professional level. We can always find another professional financee or software developer. But it’s more difficult to find a person who fits culturally with our et cetera. So, increasingly I work a lot with HR to make sure that happens.
Nathan: Hmm. Interesting. That makes sense. So, when it comes to the onboarding process can you take me through that onboarding process? Any golden nuggets that you’ve learnt over the years from really refining that?
Davis: Well, actually it’s been a better process only in the last two years of Printful. But, you know, we tailor the onboarding process to make sure it’s tailored to the position, the location they are. The manager does it. So our onboarding process, I think, something that we’re doing that other companies could benefit I always try to provide at least two sessions for all new employees. So I do this company history and productivity training for all the new employees once a month. So I give this sort of presentation, we sit down because a lot of cases new employees actually don’t get to see CEO that often and it might be they are some future assets to be in that intimate setting with the top management. So I try to give it a chance for our employees to do that as well. So, I’m involved in that onboarding process because I think it is important.
But, remember I just talked about me need today sitting in the onboarding process and I identified a couple of things that could be improved there. Form simple things like using the same font, right. We didn’t use the same company font in our presentations. Our documents could be visually improved. But, to more other things like we have a flexible start time at our Latvian office. So, you know, our employees can start at 11 and then we have a paid lunch for our employees. I ask the onboarding HR specialist to explain why we have those things. How it comes from the history and how it’s a part of our culture, what does it mean et cetera. So, I made sure to talk to her about that and so she can explain that to all new hires as well.
Nathan: Interesting. Awesome. How long’s the onboarding process take usually?
Davis: Oh, it takes roughly about two weeks. At least two weeks. In certain cases it could be a little longer. But, at least two weeks. So it’s a pretty busy first two weeks for each new hire.
Nathan: Let me see. You said you have company history, productivity training. You have a presentation. Is there anything else that you’ve used or done to really find it really helps people get up to speed as fast as possible and get the culture embedded?
Davis: Well, one thing is just meeting face-to-face the people they have to work with. It’s a lot of time, actually, for existing managers. Like, each week somebody new joins and every other week they have to meet the new employees. But, so what does the existing manager does is they write questions that they need to ask a person from the other department about what they do and how they interact. Let’s say marketer needs to understand what the finance team does. So the new marketer goes to somebody from finance team and ask these questions. I think that helps the intra department coordination. But also breaks down barriers that the new hire when it is necessary is not afraid to ask help or questions for that other department. Because nobody’s afraid to talk to HR because that’s what they already met. I try to make sure the new hires also meet people from other departments. So, that barrier is immediately broken down as well.
Nathan: Hmm. Awesome. Okay. Well, look, we have to work towards wrapping up Davis. But, couple last questions. First one is where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work? Then, lastly was there any kind of words of wisdom, any questions that I didn’t ask you that you’d love me to ask you? Or anything that you wanted to share just to finish off this interview?
Davis: Okay. So, people can find more about me on LinkedIn. You can follow me there for all things professional. I do have other social media accounts but probably related Printful my LinkedIn is the most active one. Generally just follow Printful social media and I think our Instagram team is doing a really good job. So, if you’re active on Instagram just follow @PrintfulHQ on Instagram.
Any other parting words? You know, I don’t know. This case your audience I guess is founders. A lot of people ask me, “Oh, when it is the time to start?” I think we have taken this, there’s many things that we do in Printful. When we started Printful there’s no right time when somebody is ready to start anything new. So, you will never feel ready. You will never have to right time so just start now.
Nathan: Love it. Awesome, man. Well, look, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate your openness, honesty, and just sharing a tonne of gold with our audience. Its been an awesome conversation. So I really appreciate it.