RPI Raises $5M from Huntington Capital, Carves Out Photo Printing Niche in Digital Age

Here’s a company that you might not think would make the pages of Xconomy. But it’s made it, baby. RPI, based in Tukwila, WA, south of Seattle, prints photo books and other custom-designed products like greeting cards, invitations, calendars, notebooks, and posters. That’s right, it actually produces physical stuff for customers.

And today, RPI announced its first major funding round, $5 million in growth capital, in the form of mezzanine debt—a combination of debt and equity warrants—from Huntington Capital, the San Diego private equity and venture lending firm. As part of the deal, Huntington partner Tim Bubnack is joining RPI’s board as a director, and Huntington co-founder Barry Wilson will serve as a board observer.

RPI has an interesting life story, having been a profitable business since 1979. I won’t do justice to its 30-plus-year history here, but suffice to say it found its niche in personalized photo products in the past decade. The company handles development, manufacturing, and fulfillment for retail partners that serve 40 percent of the photo-printing products market. That means if you’ve ordered custom photo albums, posters, or stationary, there’s a good chance that RPI made it and delivered it to you through partners like Walgreens, Snapfish, or Tiny Prints (not Shutterfly though).

Memo to Facebook and online photo-sharing giants: this is a business to watch.

Rick Bellamy has led RPI as chief executive since early last year. He had joined the company in 2008 as a member of the executive team, to help drive the technology portion of the company (more on that shortly). Bellamy is a veteran of Ivey Imaging, Iridio, RR Donnelley, and EPR—which he says launched the first database-driven website back in 1993 (foodnet.com). In a way, Bellamy has come full circle with his new business. “The Internet has created an expectation of personalization,” he says, citing everything from Amazon.com recommendations to the latest iPhone apps.

But what really grabbed me about his business is the idea of “digital permanence.” Bellamy gave an example from his recent fundraising efforts. “One of my tasks has been to seek growth funding,” he says. “Traditionally you do that through PowerPoint, or a memo printed on a laser printer. Because of our business, I created a memorandum in a leather-covered book. I distributed it to private equity groups. When I visit their offices, it’s still on their bookshelf or desk. They won’t throw it away. That’s one story of the power of something physical—it’s very personal and relevant.”

That also raises deeper questions around what consumers will want packaged digitally—electronic books on the Kindle, say, or periodicals on the iPad—versus in a physical medium … Next Page »

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