Almost anyone would agree with the goal of Portland, Ore., startup GreenPrint: end wasteful printing. But as The New York Times points out in a profile this weekend on the company, which makes software to reduce unnecessary pages in a printing cycle, working out the business model and technical hurdles to sell a product that supports this goal is difficult. After four years of development, GreenPrint’s consumer-facing free software is being actively used on a daily basis by only around 25,000 people. The Times says companies have been reluctant to buy the startup’s corporate version “until GreenPrint worked out a host of technical issues,” like the fact that when the software encountered big documents it really slowed down the printing process.
But in addition to technical issues bogging down the plan, the business model actually leaves a lot to be desired. GreenPrint offers a free downloadable consumer version, a premium $30 consumer product, and a version for corporations that costs $70 per user. Free downloads from a company’s web site are generally a very difficult way to bring in revenues. GreenPrint is trying to bring in revenue by selling ads on the free version, but I can’t picture too many advertisers lining up for that. In addition, it can be hard to convince customers using something for free to upgrade to a $30 premium version.
So GreenPrint clearly needs corporate customers, and it’s launching 2.0 of its corporate version in a couple weeks in an effort to offer a faster, better product. But that’s also a tough sell in this economy. It costs $70 per employee computer user to license a software that reduces printing pages and reportedly saves only about $100 per year for a typical employee printing 10,000 pages at 6 cents a page. Unless the company has tens of thousands of employees and has had particular problems with excessive printing paper waste, the savings aren’t that compelling — it sounds easier just to make a rule that employees can only print a few select documents when needed.
Ultimately, the GreenPrint software seems like it should be a feature on a printer. So companies developing printing gear should actually be the ones watching this startup closely to see if the software starts to gain more traction. If customer use does pick up, printer makers should invest into adding this type of feature onto their own systems, though they could be slow to do it, as it’ll cut down on printer ink sales.
Perhaps ending up as a feature at a printing company is GreenPrint’s most hopeful scenario. In particular, a company trying to rebrand itself as a sustainable enterprise might be interested in acquiring GreenPrint. The purchase likely wouldn’t be too expensive (one of those “undisclosed amounts” deals). The perfect candidate: Xerox (s XRX). Xerox also is struggling to remake itself in a world that is moving from paper to digital, and it has a big enough balance sheet to do a potentially cheap experiment. The Times article says Xerox is using 150,000 copies of GreenPrint’s software as part of a marketing campaign for its solid-ink printers.