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Sun, Jul 05, 2009 - Page 12 News List

That long, long road from fresh idea to success

By Vindu Goel  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Save paper, save ink, save money, save the planet. Marketing doesn’t get any better than that.

When Hayden Hamilton and James Kellerman started batting around the idea for their printing software in May 2005, it seemed that simple and brilliant.

Roughly one out of five pages that people print are wasted — the stray lines at the end of a Web document, the boilerplate at the bottom of an airline e-ticket, the endless PowerPoint slides before the page with the important conclusions.

Hamilton and Kellerman wanted to create software that would make it easy to eliminate the junk: When users hit “print,” a preview of the document would pop up and allow them to quickly choose which pages they really wanted.

Four years later, the two men and the company they founded, GreenPrint Technologies, are still struggling. About 168,000 people have tried the company’s free consumer version, but only about 25,000 are using it on any given workday, by the company’s estimate. Corporations, the gold mine for software like this, have been reluctant to buy it until GreenPrint worked out a host of technical issues.

“It’s more difficult than you’d think it would be,” said Hamilton, chief executive of the start-up, which is based in Portland, Oregon. “We had zero insight into what challenges would be in place for an organization of 50,000 users.”

GreenPrint’s travails are all too common for small technology companies.

“The gulf between invention and innovation is often a huge one that many entrepreneurs can’t cross,” said Scott Anthony, president of Innosight, a consulting firm.

In other words, it’s not easy to turn a bright idea into a genuine business.

GreenPrint might finally hit its stride with version 2 of its software. The updated consumer software was released last month (downloadable versions are at www.printgreener.com), and the corporate version is due in a few weeks.

The new software is faster and offers network administrators more reports on who is printing what and how much money a company is saving. GreenPrint has already landed one big customer — an Asian conglomerate that ordered 50,000 licenses — and says that several more are interested, including the HSBC Group, the big banking company.

But if the past four years have taught GreenPrint anything, it is that progress can be slow.

Kellerman, the chief technical officer at GreenPrint, said the company had listened closely to early customers, like the International Finance Corp, a unit of the World Bank Group.

IFC tested the original version of the software with about 190 people. The verdict was that it was too slow and choked on large documents like PowerPoints. A lot of users turned it off.

“It was preventing them from doing work they needed to get done,” said Sarah Raposa, who runs IFC’s internal sustainability program.

Kellerman said GreenPrint had not realized how hard it would be to create a universal “translator” that could handle every application and printer. Ultimately, GreenPrint had to overhaul the entire software engine, switching to Microsoft’s XPS document standard, which is tuned to run especially fast in Windows Vista and the coming Windows 7.

In the meantime, the environmental consciousness that prompted IFC and other early users to support GreenPrint has become commonplace.

GreenPrint’s biggest deal so far is with Xerox, which has distributed 150,000 copies of the software with its line of solid-ink printers as part of a broad, eco-friendly marketing campaign.

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