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Robert Keane is the president and CEO of VistaPrint, which he founded in 1995 to provide small businesses print tools to market their business. Robert’s vision for VistaPrint emerged from his experience with the development of a retail kiosk design and printing system as well as from his knowledge of the small business desktop publishing software market. He earned his B.A. in Economics from Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass. and his M.B.A. from INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France.
SM: Take us back to where your story begins. Where are you from?
RK: I grew up outside of Buffalo, New York by the Canadian border. I went to school at Harvard and worked in Boston for a while before moving to France.
SM: What took you to France?
RK: I went there for business school at INSEAD.
SM: Did you start the company while you were at school?
RK: It was a result of the New Ventures course. I was always interested in entrepreneurial and new venture activity. I had never done it before, and I was 31 at the time. One of the reasons I liked INSEAD was because it was a one-year program, and I did not have to stay out of the workforce too long.
While I was there I had an idea for a business that is now VistaPrint, and I was researching that and doing a business plan during the summer break and into the autumn. I missed the graduation ceremony because I was going off on a trip to try and prepare the launch of VistaPrint.
SM: What did you have in mind when you started this company? What was your thesis?
RK: This was in 1994, and the thesis was that micro businesses, businesses with one to five employees, had great difficulty of getting great-looking graphic design and printing in very low volumes. Brochures, presentation folders and things of that nature were constrained by the cost of setup back then.
A minimum production run of 5,000 brochures would require at least $1,000 to get going. No printer would do a full color brochure in a quantity that was more appropriate for micro businesses. I was fascinated by that problem, partly because of some work I had done in my prior job in the United States with desktop publishing and remote desktop publishing.
When I was at INSEAD I was looking into it, knowing that I had an interest in starting a business but not sure that this was the right thing. The more I looked into it the more intrigued I became. I had a colleague at INSEAD who was taking a year sabbatical from Microsoft to get her MBA. She introduced me to Microsoft Publisher, and I was aware of other companies in the US that had made specialty papers for laser printers. I realized there were a lot of products around the concept of helping small businesses do printing in very small quantities.
SM: This was happening on your side?
RK: Exactly. The model I came up with in 1994 was to use a desktop publisher, a laser printer, and to let the customer do the graphic design and print from their desktop. We would sell specialty consumable products to allow them to get color onto that low volume printing. The VistaPrint of 1994 was just an idea.
SM: How did you go to market and acquire customers with that model?
RK: It was just an idea and we could not go to market with that model. In 1995 I spent a year as a consulting company as I tried to do the model I just described. However 98% of our revenues came from a consulting program for Microsoft. I worked as a consultant to Microsoft Publisher’s European headquarters, which are in Paris. I did research for them regarding the needs of small businesses in graphic design and printing.