If you spend enough time in the creative, startup or design scenes, chances are you’ll collect a MOO business card, also known as the “secret handshake” of the web community.
The colourful half-sized cards are the creation of Richard Moross – the entrepreneur who was part of the first wave of internet-based pioneers to set up shop in east London in 2004, aged just 26.
More than a decade later, what began as a one-man startup is now a £100m business with 600 staff spread across six offices in the UK and the US. The vast majority of MOO’s sales are in the huge North American market, now accounting for 75 per cent of their revenues. In addition to its well known cards, the company’s range also includes hard- and softcover notebooks and business cardholders, among other things.
Its London headquarters have recently moved from a warehouse in Shoreditch to a 35,000 square foot space down the road in Farringdon, which comes complete with an ice-cream machine, pool tables and a “library” – a giant bookcase, where MOO employees can bring in books to place on shelves.
So it might be hard to imagine the first iteration of the business was a bit of a flop, with the company nearly dying in late 2005.
What changed? A little creativity and a lot of persistence.
Born and raised in north London, Moross, now 40, describes his younger self as more creative than studious. “It wasn’t like I wanted to be a policeman or a firefighter. I didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted to do,” he tells The Independent. “Retrospectively, it’s interesting that no one ever talks about becoming an entrepreneur at school. I remember doing career coaching and going to job fairs, and entrepreneurship was very underrepresented as an option.”
Moross attended Sussex University to study philosophy and politics – a course he enjoyed, although he wasn’t inclined to make a career out of it. “I wasn’t interested in becoming a politician, and professional philosopher isn’t that much of a job,” he says.
After a brief spell at the BBC he joined a startup called Sorted.com, a tool that told users about the hidden places – from coffee houses to bookstores – in their neighbourhood. The business eventually ran out of money and closed in 2001, prompting Moross to get involved with Imagination, a design agency.
“What I loved at Imagination was working on big brands with smart people. But what I was missing in that role was being able to design products and make products better and more exciting. I didn’t want to do the campaign around the car, I wanted to make it.” he says.
It was 2004 when, during a sleepless night, Moross first had the idea to launch a startup selling paper cards. His first enterprise – the rather ambiguously named Pleasure Cards.
“MOO was once Pleasure Cards. A great idea with a horrible name that didn’t work for all sorts of good reasons,” he admits. “The idea was to create a business card for your social life – to give out at a party, say, instead of in a business meeting.”
Set up with £100,000 of seed finance from angel investor Robin Klein (who is still on the board of MOO today), the idea never took off. “By the end of the first year of business we were quickly running out of cash and people didn’t understand the concept. I thought that instead of making these social cards, we should start printing for social networks, help people put their photographs on paper, give them access to design tools in order to make their brands look good.”
The company was saved by a lucrative tie-up with photo-sharing website Flickr, which allowed users to print their pictures onto the business cards – sparking a lot of interest from investors. The promise of real revenue was enough to secure another £5m in investment and that was when MOO as we know it today was born.
Meeting someone is a much more special experience than receiving an email. When you meet in person, you want to be remembered and our hope is that our card helps you make that connection
In the age of smartphones, the process of handing out a physical card with your information on it can seem remarkably outdated. But the digital revolution actually gave new life to one of the world’s oldest industries.
“Business cards might be 300 years old but without digital technology our business wouldn’t exist. We sell 100 per cent of our products through the website,” Moross says. “MOO cards can also carry a different image on every single card, thanks to the digital printing press. It show that, in a digital world, good quality physical objects still matter. Meeting someone is a much more special experience than receiving an email. When you meet in person, you want to be remembered and our hope is that our card helps you make that connection.”
That is not to say that MOO has not made a few digital updates since its launch. In 2015, the firm released a new range of cards embedded with near-field communication technology that connects it directly to a web page or social media network when tapped with a smartphone.
MOO is also continuously trying to improve its green credentials and sticking its nose into the world of eco-friendly papers. In 2017, the company collaborated with Mohawk Fine Papers to take discarded cotton T-shirt scraps and give them new life as premium business cards. Usually, the scraps left behind from a T-shirt go to waste. But MOO takes these bits of fabric and uses a traditional printing technique to turn it into a high-quality paper.
“To fight off competition you need to understand the landscape, what your customers want and what they value,” Moross says. “We’re constantly looking ahead and thinking of how we can make our products better. In the case of cards made out of cotton, many of our competitors already have eco paper – but we took one step further to create a new type of better quality green paper.”
At about £14 for a pack of 50 original cards and £25 for a pack of luxe cards (printed on extra-thick luxury paper), MOO cards are a premium product. But they remain a cheaper option for those looking for customised business cards without the need to enlist a designer.
“To some extent if all you need is very cheap business card, you can just write an email to that person with your signature or write your number on a piece of paper. But professional design is expensive and hard to access. So we talk about great design for everyone and we think about how to use technology to make the design cheaper and the software accessible or or how we can help professional designers make their brand stand out.”
When MOO was first founded, the team, which then consisted of just eight people, decided they would gather for a staff lunch on a weekly basis. Fifteen years later, the tradition endures, with employees being treated to free lunch every Friday.
Moross, a keen photographer who has visited more than 60 countries, wants employees to have a life outside their jobs, believing this only increases productivity and creativity. “I tend not to work on weekends and I switch off very easily. You’re failing at your job if you’re 15 years in and you’re still working every hour of the day. You’re either failing at your job or you’re failing at your life and probably robbing your team of the things they could be doing. I want people to come to work and be themselves. No one has to wear a suit and tie unless they want to, they can wear what they would at home – providing they wear clothes, of course.”
Refreshingly, for a tech veteran who has little to prove to anyone, Moross can’t seem to rest on his laurels and is already looking to the next steps. “It’s always about pushing the business further. This year, we’ll be expanding our product range and building much more for professional designers. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to building a good, strong, sustainable business.”