Wed, 28 August 2019
265: Battle-Tested Lessons on Scaling a Fast-Growing Global Company, With Printful CEO Davis Siksnans
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
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Sophia Lee