Backed by 500 Startups and in the process of raising Series A funding, Keen is solving an ‘unsexy’ but important problem for the printing industry

By Editor August 27, 2012
Keen Systems logo

Keen Systems logoA Q&A with Keen founder and CEO Vitaly Golomb. The San Mateo, California–based company was founded in 2008 and closed a $925K funding round in early August. Investors include Apaxys Ventures and 500 Startups.

SUB: Please describe Keen, and the value proposition you offer to businesses that offer printing services.

Golomb: Keen is a cloud-based ecommerce suite for the $640 billion print industry. We believe that print businesses deserve beautiful, modern and scalable ecommerce systems. From copy shops to commercial print to packaging, print is a highly-fragmented industry 13-times the size of online advertising. By 2017 over 50 percent of print orders will originate online.

Traditionally, ecommerce has been very expensive and difficult for print companies. Keen makes it easy and brings in network effects never before possible.

SUB: Who are your target users?

Golomb: Keen was designed to help print service providers and print distributors with 1-to-250 employees. Our typical customer is a closely-held 15 employee company with substantial investment in printing equipment and $1.5-$3 million in annual B2B sales. We also provide special versions of our system for chains and franchises. The first such partnership we recently announced is with Franchise Services, the parent company of PIP and Sir Speedy brands.

SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition?

Golomb: Traditionally, print companies were sold expensive software licenses, had to hire IT staff, and maintain costly servers themselves. With over 80 percent of the companies having 20 employees or fewer, these legacy solutions were simply too expensive and difficult to implement to ever make a substantial difference for the overwhelming majority of the industry. That said, we care far more about solving our customers’ problems than obsessing about what competitors are doing—after all, they haven’t adequately solved the problem for the majority of the market and this is why Keen exists.

SUB: What differentiates Keen from the competition?

Golomb: Keen is a Silicon Valley startup uniquely founded by print industry experts and Internet startup veterans. The different way startups function—versus established industry suppliers—in an effort to disrupt the status quo, is something your readers should understand well.  Our platform is the first true cloud-based solution designed for the complex and specific needs of the print industry. The application infrastructure and technology framework is modeled after high-availability social networks. We are operating on a Scala stack, which is considered somewhat at the forefront generally, let alone in our industry.

Our multi-tenant architecture allows us to host many customers efficiently and deploy new code daily. This also enables Keen to launch seamless real-time integrations with plugin partners, giving print companies network effects never before possible. Keen has some unique, patent-pending intellectual property in this area.

SUB: What were the first steps you took in establishing the company?

Golomb: Once the idea was crystalized, the next steps were to assemble a technical team to start fleshing out the architecture and, in parallel, start validating the problem statement and product thesis (solution) with customers.

SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for Keen? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?

Golomb: I’ve been involved with the printing industry since the age of 15, when I was one of the youngest employees ever at Kinko’s. After running product and front-end teams in the dot com days, I did a stint as a turnaround CEO of a printing company. Over the course of four years, I tripled it in size and sold it to a large competitor. Next I started a design firm which grew to multiple offices quickly. We were brokering a lot of print work and started looking for a software tool to manage communication and orders with our customers. We could not find anything even remotely adequate and realized we had to ‘roll our own.’ I was shocked there was no modern solution in an industry this size and after validating that, decided to focus on this problem full time. You can say it was an ‘aha’ moment, but it definitely came from understanding both the industry problem and modern technology and models on a very deep level. In other words: insight.

SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story behind it?

Golomb: Through the years I’ve run several formal naming projects, especially while running my design firm. Naming a company or product is a combination of messaging to the audience, legal availability, domain availability, etc. In this case, the goal was to come up with something unique, short, easy to spell, with available namespace—domains, social media, etc., something that would work worldwide and with a positive connotation. I also thought about what I wanted our customer to feel when using our product and kept coming back to the feeling of ‘smart.’ After an exhaustive search, ‘Keen’ was the winner.

SUB: What have the most significant obstacles been so far to building the company?

Golomb: Keen is admittedly in an unsexy area. So while all sorts of consumer Internet nonsense was getting money thrown at it, we had an uphill battle raising initial funds. Inside the industry, we still deal with large partners who just can’t shake their out-of-date, OEM approach. But we’ve made a decision early on that we are going to stick to our vision and only do deals that support it. Having consistently gotten industry recognition, starting at our launch at Graph Expo 2011—where we won an award—and our recent 2012 InterTech Technology Award—Keen is the youngest company in its 34-year history—we are now getting very well known.

SUB: You recently announced that you have raised $925K in funding. Why was this a good time to raise this round, and how do you plan to use the new funds?

Golomb: The recent announcement was for the total seed capital which we brought in over a period of time. It also includes participation from Dave McClure and 500 Startups, who we are very excited to have on board.

SUB: Do you plan to raise additional funding in the near future?

Golomb: We are currently in the process of raising our Series A, which should close in the Fall.

SUB: How does the company generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?

Golomb: We provide a product companies are willing to pay us every month to use. Pretty straight forward. That’s the nice part of a symmetric B2B SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) model versus something like an asymmetric consumer ad model or worse yet: scale first to maybe have some kind of undetermined data business one day.

SUB: What are your goals for Keen over the next year or so?

Golomb: We are going to be announcing a number of major partnerships and international localizations, as well as major new functions and stand-alone new products. Stay tuned.

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