Inside Latvia's first unicorn

Print-on-demand group Printful have become the first Latvian start-up to gain unicorn status. MT speaks to its co-founder and CEO about the company's secret to success

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 13 Jul 2022

What is your most compelling competitive advantage? This is the kind of question CEOs routinely answer with platitudes about the people they work with. Davis Siksnans, the Latvian co-founder and CEO of booming print-on-demand group Printful, isn’t one for platitudes. “Vertical integration,” he tells Management Today briskly.

This answer doesn’t imply that Siksnans doesn’t care about his colleagues, it reflects the unusual origins of Printful which, although founded only nine years ago, is the first Latvian business to achieve unicorn status (a valuation of more than $1bn), generating around $290m in revenue. (The other co-founder, Lauris Liberts, remains on the board.)

Printful was conceived when Liberts’ on-demand poster design business Startup Vitamins diversified into clothes, specifically T-shirts, and found that it could only source from family run print shops which struggled to cope with volumes and timelines and, crucially, did not use an API interface. The solution was to start-up Printful.

That launch was led by Liberis and Siksnans, who began designing websites for friends when he was 13 and joined parent company Drauglem Group as an IT administrator at 18. He now runs Printful as CEO. The COO Zane Levsa has also risen swiftly through the ranks, joining as a management trainee in 2014.

One secret of the company’s success is that, right from day one, it has striven to control its own destiny. “We own the entire production process,” says Siksnans, “from controlling the quality of product and print technology to fulfilment and shipping.” This self-reliance has certainly helped Printful in a time of supply chain disruption. 

This is how the company’s model works. It offers a subscription-free partnership to e-commerce businesses handling the printing, packaging and shipping of orders, thereby freeing clients to focus on design and marketing. Each order generates two transactions: the partner charges the customer and Printful bills the partner for services rendered. There are no minimum order sizes, which means less inventory and less environmentally harmful waste.

Printful offers clients help with design and marketing because few SMEs are equally good at both. Siksnans says: “Many start-ups believe their product is so great it will sell itself but even the best product won’t sell unless the right people know about it.” The marketing in Printful’s own website is pithy and relevant – one striking slogan is “Your needs are our specialities.” One of the first things his team did was to agree a budget for Facebook advertising.

In part, Printful’s success is an example of the creative cluster theory which, although much debunked, is credited with fuelling Tallinn’s start-up scene, fashion in East London and videogames in Dundee. Siksnans’ company even has a younger domestic print-on-demand competitor Printify, which raised $45m in funding last autumn. 

With a tiny domestic market – the country is home to less than 2m people – Latvian start-ups have to consider the big picture from day one. The capital Riga is home to a nascent, but vibrant start-up scene, inspired by the success of neighbouring Estonia – known as e-stonia in the global tech industry – and backed by government funds and incentives.

As Marija Rucevska, co-founder of the Tech Chill Foundation and conference puts it: “Riga has lots of trees, really good air and, when it’s not freezing outside, it’s actually nice.” Other promising start-ups in Latvia range across agritech, artificial intelligence and data management. Printful’s unicorn status is, the government hopes, just the first of many.

To flourish in print-on-demand Printful has to be agile. Merchandise can go viral through social media creating instant demand – a good example being the Bernie Sanders mitten meme after American president Joe Biden’s inauguration. As Siksnans told Forbes magazine: “Younger generations want to stand out. They’re not buying as many branded items from Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch or H&M and are buying smaller brands and, increasingly, printed apparel.”

Another element of the boiler-plate rhetoric which CEOs use to deflect stakeholders is to insist that they are always learning, without ever specifying how, what or from whom. Siksnans freely admits that he and his colleagues read anything they can get their hands on that might yield insight into the pioneering tech giants – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Tesla – or better ways to manage their business.

He says he has learned from Amazon’s success in accelerating delivery and placing fulfilment centres as close to customers as they can. “We are following that in our own way,” he says, “although I wish we had started earlier.” Printful now has fulfilment centres in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Latvia, Spain, the UK and the US.

Growth of such magnitude and speed creates new challenges. He soon realised that one of the best ways to help teams in different locations and different cultures collaborate is to encourage them to meet face-to-face and in person. He has also invested heavily in the employee on-boarding process which had lagged behind Printful’s expansion. 

Being largely self-funding, Siksnans and his team can make decisions as they see fit. His mantra, he said once, was “If you’re 60-70% certain of something, make the decision.” Yet in May 2021, the company raised $130m from Bregal Sagemount, which has a seat on the board. That deal shows the investor’s faith in the future of print-on-demand but will the private capital giant have the same agenda as Printful’s founders?

There is an American tinge to Siksnans’ management philosophy which partly reflects a year studying information systems in Wisconsin, his entrepreneurial zest (he is an eloquent advocate of the ‘creator economy’) and an affinity with Western popular culture.

His favourite inspirational quote, he told Authority magazine, is not by Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs but by Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt in his favourite movie, Fight Club): “This is your life – and it’s ending one second at a time.” 

IN DEPTH