Printicious_founders at Facebook HQ

Vincent and Henry Tong, co-founders of Printcious, at Facebook’s offices

For many people, nothing says “you are special” like a custom-made gift – even if it is just a simple shirt (possibly with a print of a photo of their significant other making a sappy heart-hand sign). Last year, a survey by YouGov estimated that UK shoppers spent approximately £1 billion (US$1.26 billion) on personalised gifts. Gifts from the heart are, undoubtedly, a very lucrative industry.

For Malaysian entrepreneurs Vincent and Henry Tong, who also happen to be twin brothers, the decision to pursue this niche market has resulted in a sizeable windfall – about US$6.35 million in revenue in about three years.

Together, they have pursued a string of successful businesses in the gift and printing industry, and all without the help of VC funding.

The strong bond of twins

It is not uncommon to see twins exhibit the same personalities or develop similar hobbies or interests. For the Tong brothers, they were no exception: Both shared a deep passion for web development and e-commerce. Interestingly enough, Vincent and Henry Tong not only pursued bachelor degrees in Information Technology, but also studied at the same university, Sheffield Hallam University in Yorkshire, England.

Their paths, however, diverged upon graduation. Henry went to work in B2B software firm Xuenn as a technical architect, while Vincent pursued the path of entrepreneurship and began laying the bricks for his string of his gift and printing businesses in 2009.

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Vincent’s first venture was printing solutions company DIYPrintingSupply. It offers a suite of supply printing solutions including heat transfer printing, photo & thermal printing, cutting plotters, PVC card printing as well as inkjet printing.

Over the course of six years, he launched another two online gift & printing startups, MyBulkPrint, providing corporate gift printing service; 123cheese.my, which provides photo booth rental service. In early 2015, he diverted into web design side business with JustWebit.

Like many twins, the Tong brothers’ fates are inexorably intertwined, and before long, Henry, too, caught the entrepreneurship bug. Together, the Tong twins launched a new online gifting platform, Printcious – one that is more ambitious in scope than Vincent’s previous ventures.

Meeting the needs of consumers, and giving designers and other businesses new revenue streams

Printcious aims to target the consumer who wants two things when it comes to gifting: cheap and unique.

“Most consumers, especially Gen-Y and millennials, sometimes lack gift ideas which are unique, affordable and convenient to buy because they are not easily found in the market,” said Vincent, in an interview with e27.

How the company meets this demand is with its online customised gift store equipped with a simple online design tool.

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“This allows our customers to customise memorable gifts with photos, text or other designs easily with zero or little knowledge in digital editing.”

It also allows customers to import photos straight from Facebook and Instagram into the design tools. Once the design has been completed, the finished product will be viewable from different angles.

But the Tong brothers’ mission stretches beyond a convenient gifting solution. They aim to transform Printcious into a portal for graphic design freelancers and other design- or gifting-related businesses. The goal is to find new clients and increase their income. This means customers can opt to go with pre-made designs.

“We built an online Designer Marketplace with design crowd sourcing, whereby all designers can upload their designs to our Designer Marketplace, and in the process receive a royalty fee once their designs have been purchased by customers to print on our gift items,” Vincent added.

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He says that the marketplace currently has over 400 designers. It aims to increase that number to at least 5,000 in the next two years.

In addition, Printcious will be working with traditional SMEs such as bridal houses, caricaturists, photo studios, and phone shops to expand their business opportunities. Its dealer programme allows business partners to resell Printcious’s customised gifts as promotional items or add values to upsell their products/services without investing in costly printing equipment.

Bootstrapping

With no VC funding behind them, the Tong brothers have adopted a conservative approach to business-building.

“We will conduct an intensive market research to see if there is a market demand and validate our business model first before spending any huge investment on it to ensure each single cent spent worthwhile. In short, we run our business slowly and steadily, keeping a close eye on revenues and profit,” said Vincent.

“Spending is kept in check so that it [the business] can weather any funding storm,” he added — a quote that is very resonant among the frequent reports of young startups collapsing under the weight of their expenditure.

Vincent shared that Printcious’s business model allows it to be lean, because the self-design tool means they can cut out the middle man – the designer – if the customer chooses to do so.

“We also don’t need to keep so many stocks as all our gift items are print on demand. And we are the direct importer of all gift items. Thus, we can keep our costs low,” he said.

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Since its launch, Printcious’s operations have been supported by the profits from its sister companies – Vincent Tong’s other three print & gift startups. Together, they have accumulated US$6 million in revenue.

Printcious is also doing sufficiently well in sales, generating a total of US$350,000 since its launch in October last year. Its clientele boasts big name MNCs and tech companies such as Great Eastern, Paypal, Google, Shell and Dutch Lady.

Also, with Printcious in operation, some aspects of its business has overlapped with its sister companies. To streamline sales and production, MyBulkPrint has been reduced to a production company to serve Printcious, and its website will act as Printcious’s marketing arm to serve corporate clients.

It is important to note that while the Tong brothers have bootstrapped their company thus far, they are actively seeking strategic partners for external funding. Recently, Printcious was awarded CIP 500 technology commercialisation grant worth RM 500,000 (US$111,600) from Cradle Fund, a government agency under Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance.

Moving forward

For now, Printcious is busy capturing the Malaysia and Singapore market. However, by Q1 2017, it aims to expand to Australia and Indonesia.

It will also launch a new business partner program in Q2 2017, which Vincent calls an “Uber for customised gift printing industry.”

How it works is that the DIYPrintingSupply customers will subscribe to Printcious’s marketplace as their marketing tool to do their online business.

“They will be given a unique online store URL such as https://www.printcious.com/partners/ahmad-gift-shop and start promoting it online. If their customers place an order, we will know they were referred by ‘ahmad-gift-shop’,” said Vincent.

“By doing so, they [do not] need to invest a huge amount [of money] to build their own website, and can fully concentrate on acquiring more customers online and do the fulfilment,” he added.

“Once their stock has depleted, they will order from DIYPrintingSupply again. Being one of the largest suppliers of customised gift printing supplies, we have the unfair advantage of attaining our materials at lower cost. They make money, we make money as well.”

Judging by the past successes of his earlier four ventures, it may be safe to say that Printcious will have a bright future ahead – as long as personalised gift printing doesn’t suddenly become passé.

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Image Credit: Printcious