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CafePress

Making an online store for everybody.

For a small business owner who wants to offer company merchandise but can’t afford production and warehousing costs, San Leandro-based CafePress.com offers a compelling alternative. As an online store and fulfillment center, the site lets small businesses boast of an array of logo-laden items like t-shirts, caps, and even lunch boxes. Vice president and co-founder Maheesh Jain talks about inventory management, toll-free numbers, and why he didn’t buy billboard space.

How did CafePress.com get started?

My co-founder, Fred Durham, and I had had previous experience in developing software for helping small businesses sell online. While many companies were focusing on the front end of e-commerce, such as helping businesses setup an online store, our experience showed that the biggest barrier to selling online was the back-end processes like managing inventories, fulfillment, and customer service. We looked for ways to help eliminate the need for inventory management and came across print-on-demand products like t-shirts, etc. By bringing print-on-demand products together with e-commerce technologies, CafePress.com was born.

So many dot-coms have tanked in the last few years; what have you done differently that’s kept you afloat?

From the very start of the company, we were focused on building a profitable business. We didn’t raise a ton of money, hire hundreds of people, buy billboards, or anything like that. We focused on making our company profitable from day one and building it on a profitable foundation.

What are some of the challenges in your business; do you have a back room with a bunch of returned t-shirts?

The biggest challenge in providing product manufacturing is scaling our operation to manage the sales coming in across thousands of stores. A typical warehouse would have pre-produced product on the shelf that is picked and packed as an order comes in. We actually manufacture each order as it’s made. We have over 3 million uniquely designed products for sale online, encompassing over 50 different types of items, so scalability becomes tricky. And luckily, returns and exchanges are actually very low because of the quality control procedures we have in place.

Some people have found online customer service to be dismal; how do you make sure CafePress.com isn’t included in these gripes?

We try to make shopping online as easy as possible for all our customers. We offer multiple ways for customers to contact our service center, including a toll free phone. I’m surprised how difficult it is to find a phone number on many e-commerce sites. We have our number on the top of all the stores we run. In addition, we offer a 30-day satisfaction guarantee on our products. We want shopping on CafePress.com to be completely risk free.

What future directions do you see for the company?

Currently the majority of our products fall into the promotional products realm–things like t-shirts, mugs, etc. In the next few months, we’ll be introducing two new platforms that we are very excited about. Our publishing platform will allow writers to sell their books and our media platform will allow musicians and artists to offer their CDs and DVDs. With all our offerings, I believe CafePress.com makes it easy for people to share their passions with others, and its great to see so much energy and creativity online.

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