Y Combinator Alum Lob Raises $7M to Expand APIs for Print Marketing

A lot of the fun in our current Internet era comes from the ability to manipulate the “real” world with digital tools—arranging a ride, ordering some food, or changing the temperature in your house when nobody’s home.

Lob, a San Francisco-based startup, is hoping to add an international network of print shops to that list. As of today, it officially has another $7 million in Series A venture money to help it achieve that goal.

Yes, we’re talking about bringing the Internet to ink-on-paper. And that unlikely-sounding combination neatly encapsulates some of the ironies we’re likely to see more of as software continues to eat the world.

Lob was founded in Seattle by former Microsoft and Amazon employees before relocating to San Francisco for the Y Combinator accelerator program last year. It’s developed software that plugs into the existing systems at print shops, giving them another pipeline for digital orders.

The startup’s business model revolves around letting other software developers integrate this print-on-demand service into their own applications—Lob makes money by charging for use of its application programming interface (API). The printers don’t have to pay anything extra for handling orders that come through Lob’s system.

That could allow programmers to automate orders for checks, postcards, mailers, and other printed materials, and have them direcly mailed to physical addresses. Lob says its service makes it easier and cheaper for businesses to commission bulk printings and mailings, when compared to traditional providers of the same services.

As co-founder Leore Avidar puts it, the company is trying to build “the infrastructure that exists for e-mail for physical mail.”

Time will tell if the startup’s offering is enough of an improvement to build a big company, but it’s not crazy to think that old-school mailers and similar marketing materials might continue to have a useful life ahead of them.

Just ask major political campaigns, which pay big bucks for TV ads and have adopted lots of new digital tools, but still rely on papering neighborhoods with slick mailers and door-hangers when it’s time to get out the vote.

Pat Kinsel, who led the investment for Polaris Partners, had previously invested in the company as an angel investor and worked with the founders for about a year before bringing institutional cash to the table.

He said the crossover of old-school print marketing and Internet-era online computing power makes a lot of sense in an era when local merchants and neighborhood services are seeing increased attention from tech startups.

My mailbox would agree: in the past few weeks, our house has received glossy, full-color fliers from online housecleaner booking service Handybook and discount luxury retailer Gilt Groupe, among others.

“In a lot of ways, it’s dramatically more effective than sending people e-mails,” Kinsel says. “They can personalize every piece of mail for the recipient, so instead of getting this junk flier, you get something tailored to you.”

First Round Capital, Floodgate Fund, and angel investors also contributed money to the investment. It adds to a $2.4 million seed round Lob raised in November. The company says it has accumulated more than 3,500 customers, including home-services startup Porch and small-business software company Intuit.

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