The Photo & Print Software Ecosystem in India —  Something isn’t right.

I am not directly involved with setting up any print house or photo lab. However with my experience in dealing with small, medium and large players in this segment, I feel something is not right with the Photo & Print Ecosystem of India. Let me cut to the chase; here’s what I think:

1. Where is the next Vistaprint or CeWe?

Companies like Shutterfly, Vistaprint or CeWe Color were no overnight success. There are regional players like Moonpig in UK who established themselves in Europe or Snapfish from HP. Which Indian company from the Print & Photo domain managed to establish itself at a global level?

So what is wrong? With due respect to the Indian contributors in this field, most Indian print houses aim to be rent-seekers and not wealth creators in the true sense. They are not interested in the bigger picture, in solving genuine problems, being innovative or trying to go global in the true sense.

At the risk of generalizing, I want to say that most Indian photo or print labs by and large look to copy an existing model, and fine tune it to serve the local need. You ask any print lab what new have they done in recent times and the answer would not sound convincing. I agree that it also depends on the attitude of their photographer customers and the end users that they serve. But unless and until, there is no innovation brought to the table and we are just playing the pricing game, they all look the same.

2. The Vistprint Syndrome

Ever since Vistaprint has created a rage, every printing company wants to be a Vistaprint. The little things called marketing or technology to be damned. And those sugar-coated, half-told success stories floating on the internet of some overnight success haven’t helped either.

What these print houses miss or forget is that companies like Vistaprint or Zazzle slogged for years, invest millions of dollars in marketing, invest in technology, innovation and strategy before they became successful. Such things are immaterial to these Indian (or let’s say many global) print companies. They want to buy maybe a SaaS based solution or create a website and it should automatically churn out numbers as Vistaprint.

This is where the Indian print company decision makers falter. They do not want to wait. They have been overfed the idea that an ‘IDEA’ is all you need and you need to move fast, unless someone else beats you. Misinterpreting the overnight success of new age brands like Blurb or Adoramapix etc., they do not want to invest in honing their skills or gaining perspective.

They should ask themselves-where is innovation in selling photo albums? Saying that my design is superior, I give quality or have better pricing is no innovation. It might be better to call it a normal business instead.

3. The dichotomy of VC and Angel Funds

It is interesting to note that many of the first generation print houses in the US and also in China were bootstrapped. That played a huge role in their successes. Why? Because it is the human nature which drives us that extra bit when our own money is involved.

On the contrary, many large Indian print or photo labs right from the beginning are heavily marinated with huge VC and Angel funds. However ironic it may sound, this is rotting the entire system. Young, creative, enthusiastic professionals leaving their jobs, higher education etc, drawn by the charm of easy investor money and an imaginary million dollar idea and start selling photobooks, iPhone covers, mugs etc without any ground work done. Well, any idea would seem like a million dollar shot when funding is a non-issue.

The companies eventually sell the same type of albums or products that even a small shop could sell. In totality, both don’t want to innovative.

4. Forcing western strategies onto Indian markets

Let me explain by quoting an example — luxury wedding albums in the USA or Europe where printing and binding is done locally. With logistics also being handled locally, the albums are preferred by a sizeable audience. But when we try to sell the same albums in India which is a price conscious market, you will seldom achieve the same success. Here wedding albums won’t be bought unless the album is priced correctly.

Thus, the Indian market for luxury albums gets restricted to certain areas which may have an NRI or rich population. But wedding albums are no Audis or iPhones that people can flaunt and hence the fad phases out. So the point is many such ideas trying to fit in a model without working on the ground realities hit a roadblock when it comes to scaling.

5. The mind numbing valuations

I am old school. Hence, I believe that profit is the main driving force behind any venture. And that any venture should be valued according to how profitable it is presently, or might be in the definite future. However the number projections should be justifiable. Sometimes print companies invest in high-end printers; inflate profit projections, don’t want to spend on technology or marketing efforts, don’t do any ground work and expect huge numbers. It is like the startups in India which get valued in billions of dollars while being loss making for years; the equation which a layman like me fails to understand.

The problem is exacerbated in case of small print companies as well who in the name of growing lose the plot owing to these inflated numbers and end up being loss makers.

6. The right resources or the lack of it

Majority of print companies rely on their outsourced companies or vendors. Technology decisions are totally influenced by those firms. It is no secret that Indian or rather many global print houses lays little emphasis on practical training. The success of web-to-print system isn’t about doing jobs for your pre-press department or automation of your production (those are important) AND they don’t matter one bit if customers aren’t using the system.

I would like to conclude that it is easier to consult, rant and point out faults. Companies like Vistaprint or CeWe Color had an advantage of being backed by strong and developed national economies and an acceptable audience. The Photo & Print ecosystem in India does have its own challenges. But I honestly wish some Indian print or photo lab scales up to the level of these companies making a name for itself as a truly global brand.