When we sat down to write the core Tiny Prints values, the fact that customers come first and that it’s our mission to delight them with over the top service was quickly established as value number one. Value number two (although none of our six values are in any particular order) is to innovate, innovate, innovate.
“Our purpose is simple when we think about innovation—it’s to disrupt and differentiate, to lead rather than follow.”
We made it an important part of this organization to think creatively in everything we do. I can’t tell you how useful this was to our survival in the early days. It’s also how we continue to thrive as a company today. Our purpose is simple when we think about innovation—it’s to disrupt and differentiate, to lead rather than follow. This single purpose has led to some of the most critical decisions the company has ever made.
To be disruptive is to prioritize the hardest problems first. We aim to attract people who want to tackle the impossible. In the very early days, when the company was operating on a shoestring budget, creativity meant something special to us. Things didn’t have to be perfect, they just had to be good enough to band-aid the situation, so we used creativity to solve a problem or seize an opportunity without money, resources or time (all of which were in short supply in those days).
As a result, this core value of innovation led us to build almost every piece of technology and software that runs our business today. As a tech company, we’re particularly proud of our homegrown systems, but one specific example of innovation from our earliest days was pretty low tech. In fact, it now seems downright retro.
It was our busiest time of the year (the holiday season), and we had severely underestimated the internet connection we needed to handle a customer boom that was even better than expected
We process huge art files and high resolution photos for most orders, uploading them onto our servers and then sending them to our printers for a final print job. By underestimating the bandwidth demand during a peak time like that, we were essentially trying to push a basketball through a garden hose. It was crippling our ability to work. At one point, we even had to stop working during the day and start pushing out the files overnight when customers were less active on our site.
To upgrade to a higher volume connection would have taken weeks, and so we were in a jam. That’s how the Sneakernet was born.
Looking back on it, the concept seems simple, but it really saved us that year. We were clogging our bandwidth by transferring all of those big, processed art files to our printer, and we were in jeopardy of delaying final delivery for lots of customers. That was simply unacceptable, so we disconnected our link to our printer. Instead of transferring the files to them electronically, we loaded all of the processed files onto big external hard drives two to three times a day.
How did we get them to the printer? We drove across town. Our driver would drop off a new hard drive full of files waiting to be processed, then picked up the old hard drive we had dropped off earlier that day.
This type of innovation wasn’t online, it didn’t involve groundbreaking technology and it certainly wasn’t sophisticated. But because we emphasize innovation and encourage our employees to throw out their most creative suggestions, we got through that mess using sneaker technology. And in my book, that’s something to be proud of too.