Serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Orfalea founded Kinko’s in 1970 near the University of California Santa Barbara with a simple idea: provide college students with products and services they need at a competitive price. The space that Orfalea rented for his copy business was so small that the copy machine had to be lugged out onto the sidewalk. From its modest beginnings, Kinko’s became the world’s leading business services chain with over 1,500 locations worldwide.
Quotation: “You really only have to do three things in business: Understand your customers, motivate your coworkers, and balance your checkbook.”
Paul Orfalea grew up in a family of entrepreneurs; one was expected to start a business rather than look for a job. Unfortunately, Paul suffered from ADHD and Dyslexia before these conditions were widely understood, so school was difficult. A typical report card was “two C’s, three D’s, and an F.” The school system was not able to adapt to Paul, but his parents never lost faith, and he adapted by capitalizing on his curiosity and energy, developing listening and questioning skills that would serve him well throughout his academic and business careers. Paul says he learned how to learn in college, and cites graduating from USC as his greatest accomplishment, in light of his learning differences.
The inspiration for Kinko’s came as Paul watched students lining up in the USC library to copy reserved reading materials – at ten cents a page. With a $5,000 bank loan co-signed by his parents, he opened a 100 square foot store near UCSB, selling pens, notebooks, and – capitalizing on opportunity – access to a copy machine.
Much of Kinko’s success can be traced directly to a unique business philosophy based on Paul’s freethinking, creative style. His theories and instincts on how to operate a successful business were grounded in his passion for retailing, his insistence on taking care of his coworkers and customers, and a sharp eye for opportunity.
Organized as a series of limited partnerships rather than a franchise, Kinko’s grew from a collection of small shops near college campuses to a business services juggernaut with over 1200 locations around the world, providing access to state-of-the-art business and communications technology to students, businesses, freelancers, and the general public – 24 hours a day.
“If you want your coworkers to think and act like owners, make them owners.” Orfalea encouraged active participation from all 23,000 coworkers, and generous incentive programs and profit-sharing stimulated a culture of engagement and creativity. Workers at every level were encouraged to share ideas freely in organizational decisions. A reflection of this success is that Fortune magazine selected Kinko’s as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work with in America” in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Forbes magazine also ranked Kinko’s 84th on its year 2000 “Forbes 500 Biggest Private Companies.” Working Mother magazine listed Kinko’s in its “Best Companies for Working Mothers” 2001 issue.
After 30 years immersed in the business, Orfalea retired in 2000. The company was acquired by Federal Express in 2004 and currently operates as FedEx Office.
In 2005, Orfalea wrote Copy This! Lessons from a hyperactive dyslexic who turned a bright idea into one of America’s best companies. This unique autobiography is filled with life lessons on overcoming obstacles and seeing the opportunities hidden in plain sight. It reveals how Orfalea succeeded using his learning differences and unorthodox approach to business to mold a compassionate, unconventional, customer and coworker driven culture that allowed Kinko’s to thrive.
Orfalea continues to invest in real estate, the stock market, and other prudent business opportunities, but his primary passion today is philanthropy, focused primarily on early life learning.