Personalization, co-creation and uniqueness have been amongst the strongest design trends in the last 6-7 years. It’s not enough to have a signed garment but it also has to be unique. It once happened only with haute couture or expensive cars and recently it has expanded to consumer products and “normal stuff” and it’s mostly about turning usual things to limited and personal editions. Think of the limited editions of Uniqlo T-shirts, Oki-ni apparel and Freitag bags, or the possibilities to change your Mac, refrigerator or wall by using Shalgo’s Mozaikit: all of these let you distinguish yourself, become unique, at an (almost always) affordable price.
Richard Moross (RM) has applied a similar transformation to business cards, which must be something like 300 years old!
Richard is the founder and CEO of MOO.com, an online service that “prints nice things” like:
and other cute paper things.
I had the opportunity to catch RM on the phone for an interview on the origin and idea behind MOO before he left for his next trip, as this guy loves traveling (and photography as I later discovered).
GC> So let’s start with the 101, what’s the origin of the business and the name MOO?
RM> The company is 3.5 years old, but the name MOO came in the last 18 months. The original idea was all around pleasure cards, an alternative to business cards. So it was mostly about design, and we created our social network. The first version of the “business card business” was named “Joker”, but it was kind of controversial, and it was never going to be bought by kids.
He decided to take the business to the next level and get investment, so he needed a new name, short, usable in any language, compatible with the url and easy to remember:
RM> MOO was something I picked because it was sort of sweet and onomatopoeic… it was sort of charming and once I picked it I fell in love with it.
GC> But were you thinking about a cow?
RM> Funny enough it was originally “mu”. Having two Os in an internet brand had been lucky in part… you know, Google, so that is how it came back.
As they started rolling out the cards, people really loved them, but they just didn’t get the social network thing. “There were other far better social networks kind of appearing. It was early 2005 and Friendster was almost at its peak. Others like Flickr had already launched, and it was clear that ours was not going to be as good as the other stars”.
Moross dropped the social service and concentrated in loading their product into other communities. It accelerated the growth of the business and it was at that time that they changed the name. “We raised some money with Index Venture (a UK based venture capitalist firm) amd that’s when we became MOO and the company went from 1 employee to 5-6 people”.
From the business point of view, RM went against what marketing books preach: He was trying to develop his own social networking community, created the cards for them but realized that the cards were the real innovation, so he discarded the social engine and jumped into other existing communities.
RM> Flickr was the first channel we got involved in, and it happened for a number of reasons. First, our CTO was friends with Cal Henderson, which is Flickr’s CTO, so there was a personal connection and we got to know those guys very well personally… and we were all kind of fans and users of flickr.
The second thing that enabled that deal to happen the way it did was that flickr has world-class APIs that we were allowed to build on before the deal. We were enabled to first build the service and then take it and say “Well look, this is ready to go… if you guys want it you can just switch it on”. We actually built everything before the deal, and being able to show someone a working product in a working format was really helpful.
This was their first opportunity to work on integration and they learnt how to plug MOO into other communities and allowed them to propose it to different demographic and geographic regions. It followed that one you have the first agreement closed it was easier to present themselves to others. “It is one small step, and then you can take much longer strides”.
But it was not only the fact of presenting the mini-cards through a number one website that made the job, as it followed that the viral mechanism that spontaneously started inside the flickr groups (Malcolm Gladwell would call it the Tipping Point) was what took MOO to stardom.
They offered for a limited time 10 free minicards to try the service. You could upload 10 different photos from your flickr collection (or from your favs), crop them online and add several lines of personalized text in the back, plus your flick avatar (and the flickr logo). I personally discovered MOO this way, and it propagated like wildfire across several flickr groups worldwide.
RM> Flickr is a community with a fantastic, diverse, creative audience. By giving our product for free to that community we tapped on fantastic evangelists, very passionate and interested people. They are happy and empowered to communicate if they really liked it (and they did! ndr)… so it’s exactly the right place if you have a product that you think is good. It was a wonderful start. We thought mini-cards would be a personal card only, but actually there’s people that use it as their primary business card and others have both. That’s great for us, the combined use if very powerful.
I think that the innovation that RM made is not that he invented a new product, instead he challenged the paradigm of business cards. Take as an example Italy, one of MOO’s strongest markets: italians are very keen on tradition for certain things, and business cards are one of them. The highest standard would be having them printed by a traditional shop like Pineider in Milan, and in the end they are boring, lack of originality. MOO breaks a taboo, and it allows you to make the work by yourself, become the designer that choses from different images (your own or from others) and makes them unique. Each time I give one of my cards to someone I take out several and say “Choose the one you like” and we end up talking about how can you produce your own. It’s definitely VERY viral.
RM> It’s a product that enriches people’s life and makes the experience of giving a card better or more fun, or helps make it stand out. The customer is our salesperson, presenting it to new people that can become new customers. We don’t have above the line advertising. Most digital businesses save the creativity for afterwards. What they do is they create products that they think would appeal to a wide customer base and then employ an advertising agency to have great ideas: soundtracks, quick digital, beautiful people, and they put all their best ideas in the end. What we are trying to do is put all the best ideas in the beginning, in the product development, user interface, copyright thing, the photography on the site, product design, hidden messages, the emails… as many exciting ideas. The kind of stuff most companies ignore. We constantly think on how to challenge something that is boring.
GC> People never put much thought on business cards
RM> It’s something you need, not something you want and I think what we really made is make it something you want to buy.
GC> You have the website, blog, a flickr group and there are other sites and groups created by your users. How do you keep in contact with your customers?
RM> That’s the big challenge for us. We have lots of customers and are very much spread across the different network relationships we have with communities like flickr, bebo, facebook. The first challenge is that you have to get your message to all, but keeping your customer service in one place. It’s like friendship or human relationships: it’s hard to keep in contact with a lot of friends. The trick to do it is consistency, and being honest, and being personal and open. And we try to do that across all those different channels.
GC> The “poke” thing, right?
RM> That’s the great thing about these new generation of social media. The world is more frequented and everyone is connected through email, skype or whatever. What I love about things like twitter or facebook is that they help us to keep in touch, without having to stay long time on the phone, even though they are no substitute for the real thing. You still need to meet people, shake hands, etc.
Richard runs a kind of family business as he works with his brother Dan Moross, who has been there since the beginning, first helping packing boxes and now as operations manager.
RM> It’s very important to have people you trust in important roles. Because MOO is growing really fast, we sometimes have to use customer service to apologize, to reassure people that the stuff is coming, etc. We have a global audience and we live in an imperfect world. I think one of the great things we’ve done is that we make sure that our customer service is very, very in tune with people. We do not just hire inexperienced people offshore, where there’s no connection between customers and the biller. My aim is to offer and exceptional world class customer service, and I’m delighted that my brother is doing that. I trust him. I think it’s kind of farming and free range. You get much better eggs and chicken if you give them room to breath, if you give them a proper job and if they know you like them and they have a great connection with the rest of the business. It’s about giving them the right tools too and one of the decisions we made early on was to try to give people the best environment and working technology (big screens, new computers, etc) to do the job (ndr: most of them use a Mac).
Born: 18 months ago
People: 20 full time + 8 during the Xmas rush. They have tripled in the last year.
Age range: from 30s to 40s
Funding: they raised £ 2.75 million of venture capital
Market: they sell to 140 different countries
- 55% North America
- 35% Europe (strongest: Italy and Germany)
- 10% Asia (strongest: Japan)
Offices: 2 in London
Prints: millions a year!
On Richard Moross
Studies: graduated in Politics in 2000
Working: for the past 7 years.
GC> An experience that helped you to launch MOO?
RM> I started working in a small internet startup in 2000, and it was terribly flawed. They had a great idea, very rich in terms of contact, very poor on sales. Over a period of time of 18 months, I had a great opportunity to learn how to do everything (doing a website, writing an email, going to a meeting, doing a cold call). I was one of the cheaper employees, I was the person that could do all the jobs: I even turned off the lights and shut the door. It was a great experience on what to try to avoid.
GC> Online apps and services that have changed your life?
RM> Business: linkedin for our HR. Netvibes is useful to monitor our business, our competitors and keep informed on marketing, technology, etc. WordPress for blogging. Personal: I’m completely addicted to flickr. It costs me a fortune ‘cos each year I have to buy a new camera to take better pics! I use facebook and twitter to stay in touch. Yahoo’s upcoming and dopplr for events and other info when I visit other countries. For example my parents know where I am on the world, they can follow me on dopplr, they can see my pictures, read the blog. Sometimes people need a bit of reassurance of where you are, what you’re doing, be sure you’re alright. The web is really amazing for this.