Exploiting Opportunity

Lisa and David Baird

Back in 1995, David Baird hoped that he and his wife, Lisa, could make some extra money by helping his father, Neville Baird, with his Chicago-based marketing business—enough to pay the mortgage on their Twin Cities townhouse while she stayed home with their first baby.

But when they sent out a flyer advertising promotional magnets to 33,000 Re/Max agents throughout the U.S., the Bairds’ new business phone rang off the hook. “We got literally hundreds of calls,” Baird recalls. “It went nuts!” Within a few years, he quit his financial services job at Voyageur Asset Management to become the family company’s vice president of marketing.

The company is now called MagnetStreet and it’s headquartered in Blaine. The company employs 100; it expects 2010 revenues of close to $20 million. The magnets are made at MagnetStreet’s finance and manufacturing facility in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton. Three production lines crank out magnets not only for real estate agents but also for university athletic departments, schools, commercial printers—and, this year alone, more than 50,000 newly engaged couples who want their friends and families to “save the date” of their upcoming wedding.

Baird gives his father all the credit for the initial MagnetStreet concept: a promotional magnet for real estate agents that included their photo. In the mid-’90s, realtors were looking for ways to get their names and faces in the public eye. Neville Baird’s business catered to the real estate industry, and one day he had a brainstorm: Why not print on magnets and make them as graphically appealing as promotional postcards?

“Nobody was doing what we were doing,” David Baird says. “Back then, if you wanted a full-color magnet, you had to order 5,000 to 10,000 of them to be able to afford it. We made it affordable for the guy who wanted only 250 to 1,000.” Because so many of the Bairds’ customers were Re/Max agents, requiring the same colors and fonts, MagnetStreet was able to gang-run orders and pass the cost savings on to their customers.

The early, precomputer days of MagnetStreet production were labor intensive: scanning snapshots, cutting and pasting tiny pieces of type onto keyline boards. “There were hundreds of ways to screw things up, and we did,” Baird recalls. “But the greatest thing was that we were a business of integrity. If we messed up, we fixed it. We weren’t in it to make a quick buck.”

Currently, with the help of MagnetStreet’s designers, customers create their magnets and wedding print materials on line. “Our online tools are phenomenal, and so is our speed,” Baird says. “But every day, the number-one thing our customers mention is our service. We don’t hide our 800 number. What sets us apart from other online companies is you can talk to a Minnesotan just about any time you want to.”

In 2005, 80 percent of MagnetStreet’s business came from realtors; in 2010, that percentage has dropped to 20 percent. But MagnetStreet has been vigorously courting a new market opportunity: weddings. Baird says the company’s walk down the aisle happened by chance. While working on the company’s Web site’s search engine optimization about five years ago, Baird noticed that save-the-date magnets appeared on Google and Yahoo search results for promotional magnets.

“We had no idea what a save-the-date magnet was,” he recalls. “So I had my wife and daughter go out and buy me a bunch of bride magazines.”

MagnetStreet’s online technology was the right fit for the bride and groom who wanted a save-the-date magnet that captured their style and personality. In 2004, MagnetStreet became one of the first users of the Xerox iGen3 digital printer, which Baird says not only gives its customers a “photo quality” magnet, but also makes small orders as affordable as large ones. Thanks in large part to this technology, MagnetStreet customers can approve an online proof of their magnet and receive the real thing in the mail three to five business days later. By the end of 2010, Baird says, customers will be able to receive an actual sample of their magnet to approve, overnight.

Though magnets remain the company’s chief business, MagnetStreet went down a new road in 2007, adding a line of print materials: announcements, invitations, and holiday cards. These items seemed to offer a logical way to leverage its printing capabilities. Last January, MagnetStreet launched a line of wedding print materials: invitations, place cards, and programs.

“Only 20 to 25 percent of brides use save-the-date magnets,” Baird says. “But most people use wedding invitations, and there are about 2.3 million weddings each year in the U.S.” Next year, MagnetStreet hopes to offer overnight samples of customized print wedding invitations. “With 200,000 engagements a month in the U.S. alone, there’s a world of opportunity,” he says. “So marriage is alive and well—or I should say, weddings are alive and well.”

So, too, is the refrigerator magnet. “We can’t shake this business,” David Baird jokes. “Even with all the information that technology makes available to us, [people] still say, ‘Give me something simple—like a magnet to put on the refrigerator.’”