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From Startup To 500 Million Dollars: VistaPrint CEO Robert Keane (Part 1)

Posted on Wednesday, Jun 24th 2009

Robert Keane is the president and CEO of VistaPrint, which he founded in 1995 to provide small businesses print tools to market their business. Robert’s vision for VistaPrint emerged from his experience with the development of a retail kiosk design and printing system as well as from his knowledge of the small business desktop publishing software market. He earned his B.A. in Economics from Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass. and his M.B.A. from INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France.

SM: Take us back to where your story begins. Where are you from?

RK: I grew up outside of Buffalo, New York by the Canadian border. I went to school at Harvard and worked in Boston for a while before moving to France.

SM: What took you to France?

RK: I went there for business school at INSEAD.

SM: Did you start the company while you were at school?

RK: It was a result of the New Ventures course. I was always interested in entrepreneurial and new venture activity. I had never done it before, and I was 31 at the time. One of the reasons I liked INSEAD was because it was a one-year program, and I did not have to stay out of the workforce too long.

While I was there I had an idea for a business that is now VistaPrint, and I was researching that and doing a business plan during the summer break and into the autumn. I missed the graduation ceremony because I was going off on a trip to try and prepare the launch of VistaPrint.

SM: What did you have in mind when you started this company? What was your thesis?

RK: This was in 1994, and the thesis was that micro businesses, businesses with one to five employees, had great difficulty of getting great-looking graphic design and printing in very low volumes. Brochures, presentation folders and things of that nature were constrained by the cost of setup back then.

A minimum production run of 5,000 brochures would require at least $1,000 to get going. No printer would do a full color brochure in a quantity that was more appropriate for micro businesses. I was fascinated by that problem, partly because of some work I had done in my prior job in the United States with desktop publishing and remote desktop publishing.

When I was at INSEAD I was looking into it, knowing that I had an interest in starting a business but not sure that this was the right thing. The more I looked into it the more intrigued I became. I had a colleague at INSEAD who was taking a year sabbatical from Microsoft to get her MBA. She introduced me to Microsoft Publisher, and I was aware of other companies in the US that had made specialty papers for laser printers. I realized there were a lot of products around the concept of helping small businesses do printing in very small quantities.

SM: This was happening on your side?

RK: Exactly. The model I came up with in 1994 was to use a desktop publisher, a laser printer, and to let the customer do the graphic design and print from their desktop. We would sell specialty consumable products to allow them to get color onto that low volume printing. The VistaPrint of 1994 was just an idea.

SM: How did you go to market and acquire customers with that model?

RK: It was just an idea and we could not go to market with that model. In 1995 I spent a year as a consulting company as I tried to do the model I just described. However 98% of our revenues came from a consulting program for Microsoft. I worked as a consultant to Microsoft Publisher’s European headquarters, which are in Paris. I did research for them regarding the needs of small businesses in graphic design and printing.

This segment is part 1 in the series : From Startup To 500 Million Dollars: VistaPrint CEO Robert Keane
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[…] rumors it plans to float a $2.5B IPO this year. VistaPrint is a US company but it started in Europe while Robert Keane was studying for his MBA at INSEAD and raised its first round of $8 million from Sofinnova, a French venture capital […]

European entrepreneurship and exits | Problem #2 Monday, September 14, 2009 at 4:49 AM PT

Vistaprint is a huge spamming operation. I get several spam messages per week from them, offering to print business cards. I have tried to opt out on their site, but no luck. They are a prime example of bottom-feeding internet businesses that clog our in-boxes and make our lives just a little bit less bearable.

isoruku Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 12:57 PM PT

I had several problems with my order. When I asked to speak with a supervisor, I was transfered and told the supervisor my issues. He told me that I am only one view point, that other customers think differently than I do and then was hung up on. Where is the call center? Obviously not in the states. Very poor service.

Coty Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 7:28 AM PT

I've been a customer of Vistaprint for four years. I've had some difficulty with the technology, but I was dial-up and that was slow and often got hung up. Each time I called for help, I was given very good support; the tech either walked me through the problem, or took care of it on his/her end. No one has ever been rude; I continue to use Vistaprint for all my business printing needs.

Laurie Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 9:59 AM PT

Wow. 1995. Vistaprint has been around that long? I did not realize. I have used the service over the years.

paramendra Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 7:11 PM PT

I tried to obtain business cards and there is not one live person, a loop in a phone number which constantly loops to the original intro loop, live chat is offshore, if you have any kind of error, they will credit your vista print account (take the money) and then let you reorder something. You can't correct anything unless you cancel. Not good anymore. What happened

Elouise Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:26 AM PT

I am in the UK and have tried to get an address or email of someone in a management position in Vistaprint. All I have got is the phone put down on me, rude comments when asking to speak to someone in charge and ignored emails.

Patricia Friday, July 8, 2011 at 5:59 AM PT

I really wish Robert Keane would use some of his billions to create a decent and effective customer service office for customers. Vistaprint has the very worst customer service in the free world. It reminds me of the Capital One commercial where the customer is calling for help and the "customer service" person is a guy hiding under a desk and making it up as he goes!! It has been since December 9th that I have been trying to get my account straightened out and I think I am working with a bunch of folks who have no idea and who do not care one bit about customer service. Robert Keane appears to need a "customer service" for his customer service. This gal is all done finished – fed up and had enough. Not that it matters cause I am only a number anyway. I will be happy to pay more to get the same product (from a local company) for my small business and get to skip all the bull crap. That's what we call it in Texas!!!!!!

Mary Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 9:19 AM PT