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Mass customization drives online-offline hybrid business models November 12, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in business models, Ecommerce, media, offline, start-up, startups, user generated content.

I’ve noted in the past that some online and offline distinctions are starting to blur. Some companies are finding that the easiest way to monetize their content is to turn bits into atoms and sell the atoms – people are willing to pay for things in the real world that they would never pay for offline.

There seem to be three major approaches to combining online and offline:

1. Single order custom manufacture

Over the last ten years manufacturing processes and technology have improved to the level where it is now possible to make single items on a custom basis. This has spawned a lot of the convergence in online and offline business models.

There has been the most activity in the market for photo books, including Apple, Shutterfly, Picaboo, LuLu, Blurb, Mypublisher and many others.

Zazzle, Cafepress and Spreadshirt take a similar approach to selling custom printed T-shirts, coffee mugs, mousepads and more.

A more collaborative example is Tribbit. Tribbit mirrors offline behavior by allowing multiple users to build and “sign” a group online card, which can then get printed out and presented to the recipient – in effect a group contributed photobook.

All of these examples are focused on user generated content. But rather than using user content, Tastebook, backed by Conde Nast, lets you choose from an extensive collection of recipes to create a customized cookbook. Techcrunch says:

TasteBook is a service that lets users take their favorite recipes from partner sites (starting with Epicurious) and create printed cookbooks that are delivered to them and/or friends. Users can add their own recipes as well, and customize the book with their name and other information.

2. Small order custom manufacture

Occasionally, one of the problems that can occur with single item custom manufacture is that the processes used for single items can result in lower quality. This is definitely true of T-shirts – many of the custom T-shirt sellers mentioned above have an “iron on” quality to them. The only way to make a high quality T-shirt with a silk screened print at a reasonable cost is make a batch.

Threadless takes this approach to it’s T-shirts. They have done a great job of building a community online, soliciting T-shirt designs, winnowing out the best designs for production through community input, and making batches of these shirts. This way they keep quality up, keep costs under control, and minimize inventory risk by selecting only to make T-shirts that are likely to sell out.

JPG Magazine takes a similar approach to the issues of its magazine. JPG is a physical magazine focused on photography. It solicits all its photos and articles online and its online community helps determine what gets printed. In a world where a new magazine launch can cost $40m before breaking even, JPG got to profitability at vastly smaller scale. A sister magazine focused on travel, Everywhere, has its first publication on Nov 27th.

3. Tying an online experience to an offline purchase

Whereas many of these companies start with an online experience and drive to an offline transaction, Webkinz starts with the offline transaction, and drives to an online experience. They have been able to draw synergies from their online casual immersive world and their physical plush toys and have sold millions of their toys to date. Barbie has had similar success with it’s online casual immersive world Barbie Girls which hit 3 million users in the first 60 days.

Another example is Hidden City, which was recently funded for a a horse themed trading card game aimed at little girls; each card unlocks a digital horse avatar online that girls can play with. The founder was behind the megahit trading card games Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering; he is clearly evolving with the industry as casual gaming moves online.


I expect more innovation in this area of combining online and offline business models. I am actively interested in meeting companies taking this approach. Let me know if you know of more!