HubCast, an Amazon.com for Commercial Print Jobs, Takes a Traditional Process to the Cloud

8/31/10Follow @xconomy

It’s no surprise that many traditionally brick-and-mortar industries and activities are being improved or even replaced by Internet technologies. Wakefield, MA-based HubCast is looking to do the same thing for commercial printing, which is far more complex than the few clicks required for printing an essay off of a personal computer, say.

Traditionally, commercial printing has been a “very manual, antiquated process,” says HubCast founder and CEO Toby LaVigne, whose family has been in the printing business for four generations. He says that for companies looking to put out marketing materials—from catalogues to brochures to posters—working with traditional printers bears some similarities to serving as the general contractor on a kitchen remodeling job: lots of phone tag, voicemails, and ad hoc instructions. And it all has to be done during the course of workdays. Plus, if your printer is in one city and you wanted your material in another, you’d just have to ship it.

So LaVigne started HubCast to make printing commercial material far more akin to printing personal documents from your desktop. The startup got off the ground in 2007, with $8.1 million in Series A funding, from Commonwealth Capital Partners and Ascent Venture Partners. Earlier this year it rolled out a professional version, designed to give companies more printing inventory and preferred pricing from printers.

“The HubCast experience feels a lot more like having an Amazon account,” says LaVigne.

Here’s how it works: Companies can handle all their commercial print jobs through their online HubCast accounts, in much the same way that customers would shop in other forms of e-commerce. HubCast helps print “whatever companies use to communicate with customers for sales and marketing,” LaVigne says.

The HubCast service enables companies to store and manage the files they eventually want to send to the printers in the Internet cloud. They can dictate all the printing specifications via an online interface that would have traditionally been handled via multiple phone calls, and it doesn’t have to be within normal business hours. Printing customers can choose same-day, next-day, or five-day delivery for their products.

“You can literally place an order any time, day or night, from anywhere to anywhere,” LaVigne says.

Anywhere within the HubCast printer network, that is. LaVigne says HubCast has identified the top 135 cities by per-capita GDP across the globe to determine where the bulk of commercial activity happens, and is adding printshops in those areas as part of the HubCast network to take orders. For example, if you’re a Boston company that needs your marketing materials for physical distribution in a city across the globe, you can opt to get them produced at a printer in your destination city, eliminating shipping costs and preventing the hassle of a package getting held up in customs and not arriving on time, LaVigne says.

OK, so what if you’re a business that’s been working with the same commercial printing operation for a while now and they seem to have all your specifications down to a T and you’re concerned that other printers won’t get your signature company color right? “Coke red has to be Coke red everywhere,” LaVigne acknowledges. (Xconomy green always needs to be Xconomy green, for that matter.)

To address that issue, the HubCast system doesn’t just include the cloud-powered ordering technology and consumer interface, but also hardware for taking those orders and standardizing elements like colors across all printers in the company network. “Everyone is tuning into the same pitch,” LaVigne says, comparing the printing hardware to the music standardization.

Another component of HubCast’s patent-pending technology is real-time pricing algorithms, which make getting a quote on a commercial print job just as speedy as looking up the cost of airline tickets on sites like Expedia.com. Traditionally there’s much more of a lag if customers were to call a printer to ask for a quote on a job, LaVigne says.

Speaking of prices, a one-year subscription to HubCast’s pro service costs about $100 a year. LaVigne wouldn’t reveal HubCast sales figures, but says the company is “doing well” financially.

In much the same way that shoppers on a site like Amazon don’t have to worry about communicating with and managing individual merchants, but instead only focus on getting their products, HubCast is looking to do most of the back-end work of handling printers and print jobs. “As a customer, you don’t have to worry about communicating with printers,” he says. “Your only concern is HubCast.”

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