Keen Nabs $925K From 500 Startups To Bring eCommerce Sexy To An Unsexy Print Industry

Yesterday, we covered the series A raise and launch of Printi, a Brazilian startup that’s trying to bring some sexy technology to an unsexy market: Printing. The startup is riffing on the Web2Print concept, offering an on-demand, web-based solution for businesses through which it hopes to bring some efficiency and transparency to the country’s fragmented and predominantly-offline print market.

Unsexy industries are often overlooked by entrepreneurs, so it’s great to see Printi capitalizing on a less pulchritudinous but fast-growing ($20B) market in Brazil. Of course, as the Printi co-founders admitted, while Brazil’s market is growing fast, it’s still significantly behind Europe and the U.S. So, what about the state of affairs at home?

The print industry is largely ignored in the U.S. too, so you might be surprised to learn that the U.S. market is big. Depending on whom you ask, its value fell somewhere between $75B and $130B in 2011, although other sources put that figure as high as $700B.

So, in what has to be the most coverage the print industry has ever received on TechCrunch, today we bring you another young print player — Keen Systems. The San Mateo-based company debuted its alpha at Demo in the fall of 2009 and went live in September 2011. As for today, the startup was recently given an InterTech Technology Award, which, in its 34th year is supposedly one of the higher honors a business can receive in the print industry (grain of salt required) and was the youngest business to receive the award. (Photoshop won in 1991, for some context.)

Why the (relative) attention? Keen Co-founder Vitaly M. Golomb tells us that he believes that the print industry is currently going through a major transition, as eCommerce becomes the primary way of doing business. Golomb, who by the way claims to have started his career as one of the youngest-ever employees at Kinko’s, says that companies like Vistaprint, CafePress, Moo and others have become industry giants by providing simple print products to consumers through convenient eCommerce-style ordering.

Yet, 95 percent of industry dollars are made from complex business products, like marketing collateral, direct mail, packaging, billboards, and everything in between. Keen, on the other hand, has built a cloud-based platform that enables print companies of all sizes and segments to offer a modern eCommerce experience to their clients.

Instead of trying to force licenses and long-term agreements on customers, the co-founder says, Keen takes its cues from SaaS companies, bringing the freemium and monthly subscription-based model to printing. Golomb believes that, along with the reduced error rate and overhead that comes with being a web-based business, there’s potential in becoming a marketplace. The startup plans to launch a marketplace of wholesale vendors, which will allow print companies to add resale programs for specialty products and services they don’t produce in-house — just as if they were installing an app.

Following its recent selection by PIP Printing (one of the largest print franchises in the world) to power its network, the startup is today announcing that it has raised $925K from friends, family, Apaxys Ventures and 500 Startups. Keen is currently in the process of raising its series A, with 500 Startups already committed to investing more.

In the end, the key to the startup’s model is that it’s trying to bring eCommerce efficiency to the print industry — from identifying prospective clients to taking orders and shipping. Like, say, Shopify, Keen makes it easy for print companies of any size to set up web storefronts (the startup offers prefab templates and styles, a la WordPress) or to offer their customers price quotes, updates and tracking information. Keen can also offer private stores (and customization), comes with a built-in transactional system, SEO, analytics, and support.

From these examples, it’s easy to see how much Keen has learned (and lifted) from SaaS and eCommerce models — not to mention the whole flexible pricing piece — which is huge for the print industry.

In the end, it’s great to see that even in the unsexy world of printing, Keen is starting to see some validation of its (at least relatively) appealing eCommerce/Printing blend.

“At the end of the day, businesses must provide a solution for problems so painful that customers are willing to throw money at it. The print industry isn’t sexy, but it’s a huge market with a lot of inefficiency,” says 500 Startups’ Chief Pirate, Dave McClure.

For more, find Keen at home here.