The Best Small Business Printing Options

Wednesday Aug 22nd 2012 by Pam Baker
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Small businesses have three printing choices to choose from today, but which one is right for your needs? We cover the pros and cons of each type to help you decide.

While you're putting together all the elements you need for that small business printing project and wondering what happened to the "paperless office" prediction, odds are you're also wondering how best to commit that project to paper.

Sure, you know the options: DIY, online printing, or commercial printer. But which is the best for this particular project? That question becomes even more perplexing if you need your project in both paper and in sharable digital forms for distribution across various device forms. Fortunately there are more options to deal with such duality.

"Printing has evolved in recent years in response to the rise of the digital age and mobile," said Chief MagClouder, Andrew Bolwell, aka Chief Geek and MagCloud cofounder. Bowell is a long-time HP Labs researcher and HP Labs is where MagCloud was invented.

"HP MagCloud helps bridge the gap by allowing users to print traditional, tactile marketing materials while also enabling them to distribute digital versions to any device, including iPad," said Bowell.

MagCloud delivers paper printed products in approximately three days, although some orders may take longer. Digital versions of your order are available almost immediately on the MagCloud site and can be available either for public or private viewing, whichever you prefer.

Prices are reasonable, starting at 15 cents per page for a standard 11- x 8.5-inch product, 27 cents per page for a 12- x 12-inch square product, $1.50 per unit for double-sided 12- x 18-inch posters, and 36 cents per page for tabloid products (larger than letter-sized but no larger than the size of a newspaper).

But how does MagCloud stack up against your other options?

Pros and Cons of Online Printing

The two primary advantages to using online printing services are low cost and convenience. Vistaprint, for example, is a popular online printing service that small businesses often use to cut printing costs and errand time. Print products are shipped right to the business' door.

"I've found Vistaprint's price -- even with shipping -- to be comparable to many local printers, but even if I had to pay a few dollars more for shipping, it's worth it to not have to drive all over town to drop off and/or pick up," said Marjorie R. Asturias, principal at Blue Volcano Media, an Internet and social media marketing firm.

But there are downsides to using online printing services, too.

"Vistaprint's quality can be uneven," said Asturias. "I've received note cards with edges that showed signs of sloppy cutting."

"Also, the 'free shipping' offer they frequently advertise is for their slowest shipping, typically 4-5 weeks," she added. "If you want it faster, you'll need to pay a progressively more expensive premium, depending on how fast you want it. It's best if you can plan your orders in advance if you want to reap the savings on shipping."

Pros and Cons of DIY On-Premises Printing

The three primary advantages to handling your printing on your very own small business printer are convenience, control and security.

There's nothing more convenient than just hitting the print icon on any device and – voila – it arrives at your printer. You can even print remotely to a printer closer to (or actually at) your destination, and thus skip travelling with paper in hand or shipping it ahead. HP's ePrint service is a prime example of just how versatile your office or home printer can be. Buy a Web-connected HP printer, and you can print to another Web-connected HP printer just about anywhere for free.

"The HP Office Jet Pro gives us vibrant spectacular images, something that most people do not expect from an all-in-one printer," said Todd Thompson, owner of a small custom jewelry business, Diamonds Fine Jewelry. "We're able to print from mobile devices, not only in the store but actually out of store. We're able to print brochures. At the end of the day the customer is able to walk away with a spectacular image, and be happy."

But the printer on your desk has its limitations, too. The most common are paper size restrictions and maintenance issues. And honestly, who here has not recently cursed a desktop printer?

"I'm responsible for maintaining all of my equipment, so if there's a paper jam or I run out of toner, I have to deal with the frustration of fixing or resupplying it," explained Asturias. "As most office managers and business owners know, toner is extremely expensive relative to the cost of the printer itself. As a frugal entrepreneur, I have to balance the cost of maintaining my own equipment -- not just the time involved but the financial cost as well -- with the time and cost of outsourcing it to local printers."

Pros and Cons of Using a Commercial Printer

The prime advantage of using a commercial printer over using your own small business printer is that you don't have to figure out the printing specs like you do with every other printing option, including MagCloud and your own printer. For example, MagCloud has a "tips and tools" section on its website to deal with issues such as trim and bleed because such printing problems are common among users. But those problems exist with nearly every online printing service.

And who hasn't scanned an image upside down on their own all-in-one printer or been stuck with a white border when you wanted the color or image to bleed all the way to the edge?

Enter brick-and-mortar commercial printers to the rescue. They can turn your primitive sketches into something that actually turns out like you envisioned it.

"Using a local, experienced print shop gives SMBs convenience of access to your print projects and customer service representative," said Deborah Simpson, president of Multi-Craft, a family-owned printing operation in the Cincinnati area.

"Additionally, it allows a small business to develop a strategic partnership with its print vendor and customer service rep so that they can develop a top notch project [with] the rep providing solutions for their marketing and collateral needs," she added. "If there are any issues in production, it is much more likely for a local vendor – with whom you have an established relationship -- to correct any error, quickly and at no cost, than an online vendor."

Beyond traditional brick-and-mortar print shops, business centers such as a local FedEx store can help with your printing needs on the fly.

"Not only are they conveniently located, I can also email them the print job, including instructions, e.g., four copies; coil-bound; clear cover; blue back cover; four black-and-white and one color, etc.," explained Asturias. "Plus, although they are no longer a 24-hour operation, they're open weekends and late on weekdays, so I can often finish a project at 10 pm, email it to them, and pick it up the next day on the way to a client or prospect's office."

"In addition, they often have supplies that I need to finish the job, such as a proposal cover," she said. "Most of the time I can be in and out in less than 15 minutes and on my way to a client."

But, yes, you guessed it; there are drawbacks to this option, too.

"It can be inconvenient having to pick it up, especially if I'm running late," said Asturias. "Most important, it can be very expensive, especially if you're printing in color. I once spent nearly $100 on four copies of a full-color proposal, including coil-binding and cover."

How to Choose a Small Business Printing Option

Enter nearly any brick-and-mortar print shop, and you'll likely see a yellowed and tattered poster that says "Good. Fast. Cheap.  Choose Two."  That pretty much sums the situation up.

Decide which printing option to use for any given project based on the quality you need, the cost you're willing to pay, and the speed with which you need it. Those parameters will help you quickly narrow down the options to those most effective for your needs.

Also consider the the following factors:

  • The size of the project, both in terms of the unit's physical dimensions and also in volume. For example, if you need an over-sized point-of-purchase poster, a heavy-weight paper stock, or 1,000 bound copies of an eBook or presentation, then printing it on your desktop printer isn't really an option
  • If you will be printing from a mobile device, then consider compatibility and conversion issues to narrow your printing options
  • If you need to print to paper and print digitally, then look to options that allow you to do so in one command
  • When considering costs, be sure to include the value of your time in the computation
  • Lastly, don't forget to plan ahead so you can take advantage of pricing deals from free shipping to bulk-buying breaks

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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