Y Combinator-Backed Lob Debuts A Cloud Printing & Shipping Service For Developers

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Want to build your own Postagram? You could with Lob, a new developer API for integrating printing and shipping services into applications that’s officially opening its doors today. The company makes it possible for a business to implement a programmatic means of printing, packaging, and shipping items on demand, including things like business cards, photos, posters, letters, postcards, checks, stickers, and more. During its brief testing period, Lob saw sign-ups from customers like CrowdTilt, ZenPayroll, LendUp, and others.

Founded just a couple of months ago by University of Michigan grads Harry Zhang and Leore Avidar, Lob is participating in Y Combinator’s summer 2013 program. Today, it already has hundreds of customers and is generating revenue, the founders say.

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Prior to Lob, Zhang worked as a product manager at Microsoft, where he saw first-hand the need for such a service. “I was working on a campaign at Microsoft where we had to put together offers for all these different customers – all having to go to different destinations, all of which had to be customized,” Zhang explains. “And when it got to the part where we had to have them printed and mailed, we realized there was no good way to actually automate that process.” Instead, the company had interns sitting in a mailroom for a couple of weeks, stuffing envelopes.

Meanwhile, Avidar’s background includes time spent first at Citigroup then at Amazon Web Services, where he learned more about how cloud platforms work. He says that basically, with Lob, they’ve taken the AWS model and applied it to a different type of industry.

The service arrives at a time when many of today’s printers aren’t as technically savvy as the startups and other businesses that need to use them. Their older systems use SOAP and XML, limiting access to what’s possible. Meanwhile, the need for online printing grows – it accounted for 18 percent of all printing in 2011, and is expected to reach 30 percent next year, and 50 percent by 2017.

But unlike services provided by consumer-facing retailers like FedEx Office (formerly FedEx Kinko’s), or Uprinting.com, for example, Lob is not meant to be a consumer-facing solution, but rather a tool for developers. Using the company’s RESTful API, developers can send one-off print jobs as needed, or can request volume pricing when buying in bulk.

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The founders see a few primary use cases for its service. One is fulfillment for businesses that don’t want to hold inventory – like a company that sells posters, for instance. Because Lob supports variable data and customizations, another area being targeted is in industries like finance or real estate, where businesses may be required to send things like bills, invoices or statements through the physical mail. It could also be useful in HR, where companies are continually mailing out forms to employees, like new hire packets. And finally, Lob can be used to send out physical checks, like those handled by a payroll service.

Lob’s API offers an address verification service (free for U.S. address and $0.15 for each international address), plus Smart Packaging, where it will pick the best packaging type automatically unless a developer specifies otherwise. And it routes jobs to the nearest printer in its network to save on shipping times and cost.

Avidar says that Lob’s network of printers is one of its strong suits. The printers are not ordinary print shops, but ones which have been standardized by having custom integrations built into their systems and workflows. The are the HP Indigo’s and the Heidelberg’s of the world, he adds, not the Vistaprint’s.

The Sunnyvale-based startup is only a couple of months old, and has been growing by 300 percent every week during its brief alpha and beta trials. Today, the founders are the only two full-time employees and they want to keep things small for now, and hold off on fundraising as they have paying customers. Interested users can sign up for Lob here or read through the developer documentation.