In this electronic world, many say print is dead. But Alexander Knieps, the founder of online printing company, Printulu, echoing the words of famous author Mark Twain, says reports of this death are greatly exaggerated.
“If you look at how this industry is developing, I don’t think we are moving into a paperless industry, at least not in the next 50 years. Afterwards, I don’t know. It is all about what channel is out there and whether it is affordable,” says Knieps.
We meet Knieps at an industrial park in Modderfontein, east of Johannesburg. This is where business cards, posters, postcards, and flyers are printed for thousands of companies, media houses and coffee shops across South Africa. In a matter of minutes, a pile of paper flows from the printer.
On this spring day, the sun shines brightly and the sky is clear. The tranquillity is shaken by the loud rattle of paper being printed.
“In our age of technology, when you are studying, nobody thinks, ‘ooh, let me go into paper’. I think it is a very rare thing,” says Knieps.
Knieps, who is born and bred in Germany, founded Johannesburg-based Printulu last year. The name is a combination of the words print and Zulu (a South African language). He studied business at EBS Business School in Germany and got his master’s degree at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain.
Starting the business has been far from plain sailing.
“The first couple of months, we were completely bootstrapped. You get your first clients, you show some nice traction, and then, in the beginning of the year, we raised some funds, which were a couple of million rands, which are enough to last for the next two years,” he says.
Investors are hard to find.
“South Africa is not the easiest place to raise money. There also isn’t much money in the market because of the current economic climate. [When] it comes to online printing, people just look at the industry itself; they don’t think how you could invest deeper. There aren’t many investors and it takes a while to close deals [compared to] anywhere else in the world,” he says.
Knieps says the future for paper printing is mass production.
“We are batching up all these smaller orders and print them in bulk and that is how you can disrupt the market. Hence, you see a shift from offline to online in the industry,” he says.
He calls on other entrepreneurs to get with the times.
“The industry is very inefficient in a way that there is a lot of competitive pressure. There are thousands of printers in Gauteng who are operating with an archaic business model. You have inefficiency on the one side and macroeconomic pressure on the other. That is why a lot of printers are closing down even though we are growing strongly at the moment. If you see those components, it actually makes people a lot more price sensitive and that actually helps the business to scale,” he says.
Print dead? Not in the world of Knieps.