How the King of Kerry plans to disrupt the design industry with Tweak

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The small coffee shop on the corner, competing with the Starbucks across the street with a lame leaflet. The local chemist that has to place a print ad next to a national chain in the local paper. Globally and every day small businesses destroy their credibility because either they don’t have access to professional designers, or the designs they have are simply bad. The current model of having to hire a designer to create good looking visual material in print just does not really work. It’s expensive for most small businesses and the average person. And it’s slow.

At the same time we know that consumers – assaulted daily by great design from companies with huge marketing budgets – now have a have a very high degree of visual literacy.

Thus, the concept behind Tweak, as founder Jerry Kennelly puts it, is to “democratise design”. Put simply, with an armoury of millions of pieces of design and a CMS three years in the making, Tweak plans to disrupt both the print and design industry, as well as a section of the magazine and newspaper advertising business. And Irishman Kennelly – who exited his previous image library business to the tune of $135m, in hard cash – plans to run the whole operation from County Kerry.

Launched in February this year, Tweak took three years of development work between operations in Kerry, Dublin and New York.

Tweak’s assault on Vistaprint and the rest of the design world is multi-faceted. Vistaprint – a billion dollar company that ships 60,000 orders a day – is the only real competitor to Tweak. But they don’t do digital. Tweak does, allowing businesses to download the original PDF of a design and take to a local printer. Tweak has branded site of its own, and is closing deals with a large number of print franchises around the world to white label its API solution for print companies that want to do a branded service.

So how will Kennelly disrupt the world of design?

First of all: Ease of use.

Have you tried creating something good looking on Vistaprint? Exactly – it sucks. Creating an amazing looking print brochure on Tweak is a snap. The Flash flex site is incredibly easy to use. Choose a business sector, like beauty, click on, say, Day Spas and get a choice of excellent designs. I’ve seen it in action and there is no horrible shovel-ware design on Tweak.

And it’s incredibly affordable compared to traditional print costs. A four page A4 brochure costs about $100 for 50 copies but crucially that includes print and design. All the images are royalty-free so there is no concerns about copyright. Users can have something printed by Tweak and shipped – they have print operations in Europe and North America – or buy the PDF or the InDesign version to get it printed locally.

There are 100,000 logos to choose from. So the chances of a small business in, say, San Francisco and one in London bumping in to each other with the same logo is unlikely.

With half a million pieces of design,Tweak has systematically gone through 320 business types and created templates for each. All the photos have either been shot by Tweak or licensed from image libraries. They also have teams of copywriters who have created simple to edit copy.

This is all the stuff that normal people can’t do – but using Tweak makes their printed material 100 times more professional.

Tweak also has two more arrows in its quiver. A direct business and a partner business. The Direct business will be called Tweak Pro and will be for printers, designers and marketers. They will be able to buy credits at a discount and scale.

Tweak Brand Manager will let companies put their own documents into the system and control them there, digital or print or both.

Furthermore, an API for picture libraries will allow them to sell their own images into Tweak – allowing them to take the average transaction value and up it. This could be a game changer for image libraries.

Finally, Tweak also plans to disrupt the world of print advertising.

So for instance, you can create a Tweak advert on the fly and size it for an ad in, say, the New York Times. You can’t place the ad… right now, but that is in the plan.

Meanwhile the problem for printers and publishers is getting art work on time, or the presses fly empty. It’s very hard with traditional systems. But with Tweak, the ads are “pre-flighted” ready to go, dynamically. All the crops, all the dimensions: done.

This could have a real effect on classified ads. Every sale, on the smallest ad, has to pay commission to the salesperson. So it’s a disaster. For newspapers that means there are a myriad number of potential customers they cannot reach as the rates are high as a result.

But Tweak’s system can build adverts for every major every newspaper globally. This means ads placed via Tweak would be most profitable adverts in the paper because it would be, as Kennelly calls it “robotic.” Also, people’s advertising assets will be in Tweak, making it “sticky”.

So who is this fast-talking Kerryman who intends to take on the world from the Emerald Isle?

Kennelly has a background in photo journalism, launching his first business in 1981, a news picture wire agency for UK and Irish newspapers. He later started the first digital pre-press company in Ireland in 1990, using the Mac. Around 1995 they looked at the stock photography space, and launched the first European company, called Stock Byte in 1996.

It was part of a wave. The first royalty free stock photography brands appeared, like Digital Stock in California, which was later bought by Corbis and photo Disk in Seattle, bought by Getty.

Eventually, Stock Byte became the largest distributor of royalty free stock photography in the world by 2004. It won venture backing from Act Venture Capital in Ireland, which took a 30% stake. However, a couple of years later Act had lost interest so, unusually for many startups, Kennelly bought out their stake. This left him with 100% of the company. Soon after Stock Byte started licensing their royalty free images to Getty.

At a certan point the market became crowded, so they decided to become the leading producer of the best imagery in the world. Shoots started costing costing a million dollars per shoot. They scaled up from 5,000 images a year to 5,000 a month, taking all the road blocks out of the system to scale. They ended up with 130 partners in 70 countries, suddenly becoming an important party of Getty’s business.

A fan of Bill Gate’s book “Business At The Speed of Thought”, Kennelly realised that analytics was the real key to the images business and started recording the earnings of each image across 60 fields of data for each one, working out which images “performed” and which didn’t, almost in real time.

In 2005 iStock exploded the market by licensing the average image for a dollar when the market standard was $200, creating a sort of ‘Craigslist for crowd-sourced images’. There was no quality, but with such a disruptive business model, Kennelly knew the writing was on the wall. He started to look for buyers.

He later sold Stock Byte to Getty for $135 million, right before their own valuation dropped, in 2006, all cash. There was no earn-out period so he walked that day. Ironically enough, Bill Gates tried to buy Stock Bytes, ending up as the under-bidder for the business.

The King of Kerry

With time on his hands and a lot of spare cash, Kennelly looked into entrepreneurship in Ireland. “There was a gap between people’s perception of entrepreneurship and lack of understanding of what it takes. People think it’s about having a good idea when the reality is it takes a lot of work,” he told me.

He started setting up non-profit organisations to tackle the issue, hitting the zeitgeist just as entrepreneurship started coming back into vogue.

Kennelly founded a non-profit called Endeavour which is the leading general business accelerator in Ireland, started only last year. Last year’s company is now worth €20 million. A sort of non-profit Ycombinator, it draws on the expertise of many of Irelands leading entrepreneurs as mentors, and brings individuals and startups to Kerry for a 6 month programme. You can imagine that they don’t need much persuading.

Kennelly also set up a Junior entrepreneur programme for 10 year old kids and the Young Entrepreneur programme for 15 year olds onwards. Some 2,500 students have now been through the programme.

The programmes have been a hit. “Lord knows the Irish are a creative race and punch above their weight internationally. We speak English, we’ve never invaded anyone and we have 12.5% corporation tax!” he jokes. “We have a special relationship with the US and every kid in Ireland travels in Europe.”

But Tweak’s plan to disrupt the design world won’t threaten the great designers – just the 95% who are bad or just “OK”. As Kennelly says: “There’s craft in design: great typography, great picture editing, great design. It costs a lot of money. But although our design costs a lot, we spread the costs of that IP over millions of users. So even though it’s cheap, it doesn’t have to be bad.”

“We’re the largest library of customisable designs in the world, half a million pieces. A million in 2012. And we can scale it endlessly. A greengrocer anywhere can create something designed specifically for their business, for peanuts, compared to what is available today.”

And it’ll all be run from the Ring of Kerry.