On the road with Latvian exporters: Printful

Over coming months, LSM will be running a weekly series of features about some of Latvia's most successful and innovative exporting companies. We have been visiting them at locations all across Latvia and hearing about the places they say are important to them. The series is produced in cooperation with The Red Jackets, the organization championing Latvia's leading export companies.

The Torņakalns district of Rīga is like a haphazard archaeological excavation in which the researchers have dug to random depths and revealed plots from different eras. Wooden shacks sway in a freezing winter wind beside the mansions of mysteriously wealthy owners around the frozen waters of Māras dīķis (Mary's pond), a local landmark upon which the ducks are skating. Walk parallel with the railway line, past the museum dedicated to poet Ojārs Vācietis and you reach the headquarters of Draugiem Group, which styles itself a “U.S. and Latvian IT company” (and employs almost 500 people - 230 in Latvia and 250 elsewhere in the world) and of which on-demand printing company Printful is currently the stand-out exporting component.

The campus in its current form – a sort of sliced-up ziggurat crossed with a pyramid base – has only been here a few months but has already transformed a plot that was previously inhabited by a building company, and before that by the municipal parks department. Long before that, the plot was part of the Altona pleasure gardens: a popular place for Rigans to head for in search of food drink, concerts and skating in the winters.

The old-time owners would approve of what can be seen from the corporate cafeteria.

“The guy in the blue hat pushing the brush is one of the founders of the company. He's been here 14 years,” says Jānis Palkavnieks, spokesman for the company. Outside, at the center of a circular space surrounded by the main buildings, in a temperature of -10 C, two men are sliding slowly around a circle of ice, using a hosepipe and brush to build up the layers of frozen water.

“It was their idea. They did it by themselves. Tomorrow we open a skating rink,” says Palkavnieks. It is typical of the company's laid-back attitude to its 300-plus employees who have access to a meditation room (sessions are led one a week by a Buddhist teacher via Skype from Tallinn), lecture hall and charging point for Tesla cars. The entire complex throbs gently to a continuous backing track leaking from speakers in every room.

Printful was born from a similar can-do frame of mind. Problems finding any supplier able to print posters on demand in a reliable and automated way led to a realization that there was a gap in the market. Now Printful has factories in the U.S. and Latvia and allows clients to print not only posters but T-shirts, mugs, clothing, bags and more - with everything handled in-house.

A digital totalizer in the Latvian office shows more than 4 million items printed – and ticks relentlessly on like the world's most powerful alarm clock at a company that has effectively eliminated the time and space between North America and Europe. Printful has announced that its goal is for the company to go public on the US stock market.

“Can I sit and write at a desk for an hour? I need to write these pieces at the actual places I am writing about,” I ask Palkavnieks.

“Sure. Here is a nice office, will that do?”

“Could it be somewhere without music playing?”

There is a pause while the beats drum on. Janis looks perplexed as we circle the stairs.

“There is music playing in every room. Once we had a problem and the music went off. People got worried. Productivity dropped.”

“Maybe it was because they knew there was a problem? You could try turning the music off intentionally. Perhaps productivity will improve.”

Jānis does not look convinced. But just as we shake hands in the entrance lobby, something strikes me.

“Listen – it's quiet! Maybe I can sit here in the lobby?”

Janis still does not look convinced but politely agrees. I sit on a green baize chaise longue in the shadow of a rubber plant.

As I write these words a speaker hidden behind a yukka bursts into life in the lobby, playing up-tempo dance music. Productivity is unaffected.

 

The Red Jackets unites the best exporting brands from Latvia with top-notch products, services, knowledge, and values. These are brands rooted in Latvia and the movement aims to spread the word about Latvia through its brands, exceptional people and inspiring places. Supporters of the Red Jackets movement include the European Commission representation in Latvia and ALTUM state-owned development finance institution.

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