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January 2, 2011

As my friends have gotten married and started having kids, I’ve been subject to a new phenomenon. It’s the annual wave of Christmas cards.

If your experience is anything like mine, you have 25, maybe more of these cards propped up around your house… at least for a few more days.  And if your experience is like mine, you’ll probably find that at least 50% of these cards are from a little company in San Francisco called TinyPrints.

Well, the company is not so little anymore.  After being started by a new dad and a few friends in 2003, the company has become nearly synonymous with high-quality photo cards, and has branched out to several other product lines.  I don’t have any insight into the company’s revenue, but it looks like they raised close to $60M in growth equity from Summit and TCV back in 2008 (probably at a healthy valuation).  Judging from my mantle, the company is continuing to go from strength to strength.

The remarkable thing to me about the TinyPrints story however isn’t how the company has grown.  Really, the most amazing thing is how large, well positioned competitors didn’t just eat the company’s lunch, even as TinyPrints started to scale and build its brand.  

Let’s think about some of the companyies that should have been able to win in this market:

1. Kodak Gallery, Shutterfly, HP Snapfish – the obvious players

2. Vistaprint – Compare their offering to TinyPrints’.  It’s like watching me play basketball against Rajon Rondo. 

3. Photobucket, Flickr, Picasa – Not really their business model, but I thought I’d throw them in for good measure. 

4. Hallmark and other greeting card companies – Asleep at the wheel.  Embarrassing. 

So as I was thinking about 2011, these photo cards were a recurring reminder that little startups repeatedly arise and kick the butts of big incumbents with significantly more resources.  And they succeed despite the doubts of almost everybody.  Sometimes, competitors think their projects just seem too small to worry about. Other times, investors dismiss them because there aren’t enough barriers to entry to their business.  Other times, employees don’t want to work there because they aren’t getting sexy Techcrunch writeups or have A-list angels and venture capital investors.   

Whatever the reason, I’ve found that it’s way too easy to underestimate entrepreneurs and early stage companies.  After all – the odds are usually stacked against them and the path of a startup is completely unpredictable.  

But I’ll make one prediction that will definitely come true.  Sometime this year, some unknown company will rise from obscurity, absolutely delighting customers and leaving their larger competitors scratching their heads. It will look like luck… a one in a million chance.  But it happens all the time… every year. 

Here’s to a great 2011.

  • Author robchogo
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