Digital Lizard: An Example of Explosive Growth in the Print Industry

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by Greg Cholmondeley, Workflow Practice Director, PODi and Caslon & Company


DIgital Lizard LogoSometimes it seems as if everything is doom and gloom in the printing industry with ongoing reports of plant closures, shrinking margins, and dwindling print volumes. But then I get a chance to chat with someone like Bill Wieners, President of Digital Lizard about how they started as a $4-5M digital printer in 2011 and have grown an average of about 65% a year over the past 4 years. That conversation inspired and energized me about the industry and where it can go. Here’s a synopsis of our recent interview. He’ll be going into more depth and even giving a tour of his facility at AppForum (www.appforum.org) in Las Vegas, May 11-13.

If you’re like me, the first question you ask is simply “How?” Well, from my recent conversation with Bill, my simple answer is that most of what they do seems to be done almost backwards. That isn’t strictly accurate and might sound like an odd statement, but in a declining market moving in the opposite direction might not be a bad thing. For example:

  • They stared as an in-plant which sold off the parent company. WHO DOES THAT!?
  • They grew slightly during the recession years and have exploded since.
  • They are a digital printing company yet half of their staff – including prepress and press managers – aren’t printers by training.
  • They teach their sales people to leave when the purchasing manager enters the room.
  • They make their money on print solutions but they don’t focus on either print sales or solution sales.

See what I mean? Who are these people and what can the rest of us learn from them?

From in-plant to commercial printer

Digital Lizard started out as the in-plant for a real estate magazine publisher called ByDesign Publishing. They produced 52-page real estate magazines with high-quality offset-printed contents and fully-personalized wrap-around covers. Business was good, but in 2007 they decided to sell the publishing side of the business and to turn the in-plant into a digital commercial printer. Digital Lizard (www.digitallizard.com/) was born.

From 2007-2011 Digital Lizard had revenues between 4 and 5 million dollars and a 3-4% growth rate. This was pretty good given what was happening to the global economy and the print industry at that time. However, in 2011 Digital Lizard was sold to CREEL Printing, a traditional web printing company, and to this day, is being run as a separate, digital entity. That infusion of capital, along with their business model and the improvement in the economy, spurred over 60% in annual growth over the past 4 years. And, this isn’t ending. Their revenues have grown about 14% already in 2015.

How do they do this?

As you’d expect, the secret is in actually making it happen rather than how to do it, but Bill’s answer focuses on three things: sufficient capital, the right skill set, and the business model. 80% of Digital Lizards work is short-run digital color. It’s his automation and the services he wraps around this printing that gets those jobs in and escalates print customers into higher-margin types of work.

Digital Lizard has built their company around the technical skill sets needed to deliver true digital printing solutions for their customers ever since the beginning. Way back in 2005 50% of their staff was technology-oriented. For example, Bill’s prepress manager has a degree in computer science and, at one time, he had a press department head with a degree in computer business management. These aren’t printers trained in technology – he built a company around programmers and developers trained in printing.

What this means is that his company isn’t afraid of tackling anything technical and it changes the entire sales and delivery approach. They don’t sell solutions – they solve problems. They seek out VPs of marketing or people responsible for revenue lines and explore what is preventing them from increasing revenues. They aren’t afraid to work with IT departments on interfacing with internal systems to create automated manifest ordering systems or tying into mainframes. They aren’t afraid to delve deep into data cleansing, management or other processing areas. They even have a saying in their company that sums up their problem-solving approach: “The minute you’re talking to the purchasing manager you might as well leave.”

The result is that they’ve created custom systems for over 40 clients which are incredible. For one large customer, they produce tens of thousands of completely automated customer support mailings every day in less than 4 hours. Another solution produces lease welcome packets for an automotive company directly driven from their mainframe feeds. Another produces overflow printing from Shutterfly in a fully-automated process. And they’ve landed a majority of the casino digital printing work in Las Vegas – in under 3 years.

These custom, automated solutions represent over half of their work. Another 12-13% of their work still comes from customer service reps manually writing up orders and Bill expects this will continue to be the case. The remaining 25-30% of their work arrives from online storefront portals.

In the past 5 years they have built in excess of 200 third-party branded storefront portals, mostly for franchises such as restaurants ordering white-labeled emailings, printing, stock print orders, etc. Out of this, most of their monthly revenue comes from only 25-40 of these and, in all cases, the back end order handling is completely automated. They also have an interesting consumer portal for independent designers who provide high-level creative services. These clients are not typical walk-in customers and they can set up highly-customized and complex templates. The types of rapid turn-around, short-run jobs these clients order are highly-specialized and for these clients Digital Lizard maintains 52 different papers in stock for same-day turn, 22 different bindery options, dozens of different coating options, foiling, board paper, and so forth. These clients are doing highly artistic and creative work and providing a solution for them to produce that type of work and partnering with them to ensure they can rely upon it being done properly is what keeps their loyalty.

Where is it going?

Bill doesn’t see his business slowing down and he sees lots of opportunity for others to thrive as well.  He does see traditional markets in catalogs and magazines declining but he also sees direct mail, one-to-one marketing and services wrapped around printing growing. His message is to not try to sell anything but, rather, to go out to identify problems and to figure out how to integrate what digital printing does well into solving them.

If this sounds interesting to you, you really ought to come to AppForum, May 11-13 at Harrah’s in Las Vegas. Bill will be providing a tour of his facility is presenting a session titled “Automation in the Real World” in which he’ll share his insights and examples of how they’ve achieved this success. He’ll also be an AppForum participant, which means you’ll have opportunities to share a drink with him, brainstorm ideas, and generally get pumped about what the future can hold.

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