Pushing the envelope

August 2016 · 6 minute read

Written for Offscreen Issue #15

I run a website that sells cardboard. I'm not talking about Google's Cardboard virtual reality goggles. I'm talking about paper pulp. Folded, glued, printed paper – packaging supplies like boxes, tape and envelopes. We also make branding tools such as rubber stamps and embossers, but our bread and butter are supplies that help brands ship their products. Cardboard is not glamorous, it's not the next Silicon Valley buzzword, but it makes your lifestyle possible. It moves almost every product you buy.

Lumi, our company, doesn't look like a typical startup. Our office is one of the countless gritty warehouses south of Los Angeles' hip bohemian center, the Arts District. Like many warehouses in the neighbourhood, ours is mostly filled with pallet racks and industrial machines. The only difference is that we have a few more iMacs than the folks next door.

It may be best known for its movie industry, but Los Angeles is one of the most important manufacturing cities in the world. It's also the largest port city in America, handling nearly 40% of all goods coming into the country. If you buy garments that say 'Made in the USA', chances are high that they were made right here. We're surrounded by factories for the biggest fashion brands, all of which rely on an enormous infrastructure of packaging manufacturers. With Lumi, our ambition is to make that infrastructure available to anyone who needs it – through a simple web interface.

When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2008, I never would have guessed that life would lead me down this path. I came to study industrial design at the Art Center College of Design where I met the person who would become my best friend and business partner, Jesse Genet. Over the past seven years, she and I have run businesses together non-stop.

The first big thing we worked on was something called Inkodye, a light-sensitive fabric dye that Jesse had been passionately researching for several years prior to our meeting. It works somewhat like cyanotypes or other photographic emulsions. Essentially, it’s a kit that helps you print on cotton at home using sunlight. Within a few years, we went from pioneering this new printing process, to launching one of the very first successful Kickstarter campaigns, then selling it in thousands of art supply stores, shipping it to customers in over 100 countries around the world, and partnering with large companies such as Puma and Urban Outfitters.

Running Inkodye, we took advantage of emerging digital tools that were becoming available to small business owners. From shopping cart and help desk software, to email marketing apps and product fulfilment services, these tools helped us keep our team small and focus on what we did best: making dye and telling people about it. But the world of web-based business tools fell short when it came to a crucial part of selling physical products like Inkodye: good packaging.

As it does for most companies, our packaging served two purposes: to protect the products we shipped, and to tell our brand's story. After all, Inkodye was quite an unusual product. If our Kickstarter campaign had taught us one lesson, it was the importance of educating our customers about the unique features of our product. Inkodye’s packaging needed to get people excited about this weird, new kind of dye that you could use to print on your own clothes. It was also a liquid, which meant that it required solid cushioning for the unpredictable transit to our customers.

Solving this problem required us to depend on stagnant packaging manufacturers who had been operating their businesses the same way for decades, working primarily with huge customers through multiple layers of brokers and distributors. Many of them weren’t even online. Every step forward was a challenge: finding them, understanding their capabilities, negotiating pricing, ensuring good quality control, and starting over again for each component we needed. It became clear that the packaging world wasn’t keeping up with the rapidly evolving state of business.

In some ways it makes sense. Manufacturers invest in production equipment that can cost millions of dollars. Their prime concern is keeping these machines running around the clock. Any time spent educating customers and setting up a new design on the production line costs valuable time. Given the small margins, they tend to focus their sales efforts on very large companies such as Procter & Gamble or Coca-Cola, who are looking to produce millions of units. Small-scale jobs are generally handled by middlemen who often still live in the age of fax machines and door-to-door sales. Frankly, they don’t give a hoot about your exciting new Kickstarter project.

As painful as this process was, in the span of three years we went from knowing nothing about packaging to receiving a crash course in every kind of design and manufacturing technique out there – from flexography to rotogravure. We learned the entire vocabulary of cardboard. Like why you might need a B-flute corrugated mailer box with cherry locks and dust flaps. We figured out all the levers that affect pricing, lead times, and minimum order quantities, mostly by making every mistake in the book.

Unfortunately, everything we were learning about packaging was being applied to just one product: Inkodye. It seemed crazy to us that every business looking for great quality packaging had to climb that same learning curve. We needed to find a way to share our new-found knowledge with everyone.

In March 2015 we launched Lumi.com. It started simple: the first version was a web-based editor that allowed you to design and order rubber stamps and a few other custom products, like vinyl decals and embossers. Up to that point, our expertise had been in making our own product. This was a way for us to dip our toes into the world of web-based services. As basic as it sounds, uploading a design, choosing its dimensions, adding it to your cart, and paying online, were all features that simply didn't exist in this industry. As design geeks, we also wanted to polish the experience with a few clever tricks, like automatically vectorising your artwork and helping you preview the design on-screen.

It quickly became obvious that our approach to rubber stamps could be applied to the broader world of packaging products, including boxes, tape, envelope mailers, and many more. Since then, we've expanded greatly on the concept, adding photo-realistic mockups of the packaging you're creating online, a hands-on 'Concierge' service to help you navigate the complex world of packaging, and a customer dashboard to manage the supplies you re-order regularly. For the past year, we have worked to bridge the gap between design and manufacturing through a user-friendly web app. As we do so, we share our knowledge with as much transparency as possible, guiding other businesses through the same complicated process we went through for our own first product.

Every morning, as I walk into work through the back of the Lumi warehouse, I see thousands of old boxes sitting on shelves collecting dust – inventory of unused Inkodye boxes that we bought just to meet minimum order quantities. They serve as a reminder that ideas often start small and don't necessarily fit into established processes optimised for mass consumption. As frustrating as it felt to waste so much energy and money in the antiquated world of packaging, I now find inspiration in the mistakes we made. Years of 'learning it the hard way' now help us better advise our customers and build the most useful tool possible. Whenever I find myself questioning the next step, I think about the problems we experienced in the past and ask myself: "Are we helping our customers avoid those problems?"

Pushing ourselves to think big made us contemplate how this industry relates to the rest of the world. Beyond the technology that drives it, I see the potential to make a meaningful difference on the environmental impact of packaging. Like most startups, we've jumped off a cliff and are building an airplane on the way down. It can be difficult to see the big picture while being so occupied in the daily operation of things. But as Lumi grows I'm slowly realising that this is less about my passion for geeky software tools and more about my responsibility to make a positive contribution and leave Earth better than I found it. Admittedly, it's work in progress.

Like many of the online tools that inspired Lumi, we are modernising a dated industry, trying to reduce friction for entrepreneurs. Even in a future where drones deliver products to your doorstep, they will probably still be shipped in a cardboard box, sealed with a bit of packing tape.

As cliché as it may sound, I really believe there’s never been a better time in history to start something weird, to ‘follow your dream’, if you will. The barriers to getting a company off the ground have never been lower. Virtually anyone with internet access could be your next customer, or at least hear about what you do. Inkodye is the perfect example of that: a weird, niche idea that somehow found enough of an audience around the world to make it a sustainable business. If more of those strange ideas can thrive, unexpected discoveries are more likely to emerge – some of which may turn out to be more important than we all expected. I think that’s an exciting prospect, and Lumi is here to help you deliver that weird and wonderful product, and tell your story with a bit of ink, glue and cardboard.

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