Kiss the Copy Shop Goodbye

Increasingly, in-house printing is a smart move

By Larry Armstrong

If You're Like Most Small Businesses, you routinely hand off your printing—brochures, newsletters, sales sheets, direct-mail pieces, and flyers—to a commercial printer or quick-print shop. But with the costs of printing them yourself coming down, you may want to reconsider. Because brochures and the like are a mix of black text and color graphics it's tough to make generalizations, but experts figure the price per printed page has fallen by half in the past five years. "Suddenly, doing your own printing is a much more viable option," says Riley McNulty, an analyst at market researcher IDC.

The cost savings are a strong argument for bringing your printing in-house. What you'll save compared with offset or digital printing services on just a couple of jobs can easily pay for a new inkjet printer that uses the latest, lower-cost ink cartridges.

But saving money is not the only reason to handle your own printing. Some small-business owners value the convenience. For Brian Kirkpatrick, founder and CEO of Winner's Circle Construction, doing it himself saves the 18-mile trip to the nearest printer to drop off and pick up his "Home for Sale" brochures. The 11-employee, $20 million company builds and sells custom houses in a gated community in Chowchilla, Calif. "When sellers put their home on the market, they want the 'For Sale' sign up immediately, and they want brochures out immediately," he says. "I can take a digital photo, design a brochure, and run off 250 copies on my [Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) Officejet Pro] L7680 in a couple of hours."

Traditionally, small businesses have prized laser printers for their crisp text, smudgeproof inks, and fast speeds. They probably are still your best bet if you print large volumes of black-and-white documents such as simple brochures or flyers. But inkjet technology is catching up fast: New printers, such as HP's OfficeJet Pro, cost $150 to $500, are cheaper to operate, and run at faster speeds than similarly priced entry-level color laser printers. Inkjets also do a better job of reproducing color photos, a key feature of most marketing materials.

Billy Norris, who owns DayMakers of Santa Barbara, designs and sells travel security gear to catalogs and stores. When he goes to trade shows, instead of shipping hundreds of flyers ahead of time for each of the dozens of styles and colors he sells, he takes along a laptop computer and color printer or buys an inexpensive printer just for the event. Norris can then whip up an appropriate flyer on the spot. "With Microsoft (MSFT ) Publisher and a digital camera, I can create a new document pretty easily," he says. That comes in handy when he pitches products not yet in production. Back home he uses the printer for everything from business cards to retail hang tags for the fanny packs and shoulder bags he sells.

Never designed a flyer or brochure? You don't need a fancy desktop publishing program: Microsoft Word can do the job. There are also plenty of downloadable templates online. After that it's a matter of dragging and dropping your photos and writing the text blocks that surround them. Microsoft offers templates in the Microsoft Office part of its Web site. At HP.com, they're in the Small and Medium Business section. You can find a more complete list of templates, some free and others for sale, under "design things" at allgraphicdesign.com. They won't make you a graphic designer overnight, but they're an easy and inexpensive way to give your business a slicker, more professional look.

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek SmallBiz.

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