Treading Carefully

March 21, 2010

Danger Minefield signPoor Richard has  never strolled through a minefield, but he can imagine what it must be like.  It seems a good analogy for the experience of hanging on to a printing business these last 18 months. There have been days and weeks when explosions were occurring all around and it seemed the end was near. On other days, the sun was shining and everything appeared almost normal until the detonation 20 feet away and flying shrapnel brought reality into sharp focus. The last couple of weeks have been like that.

Macon, Georgia is no business Mecca. It is a sleepy southern town that has had better days and hopefully will have better days again. Macon has been a good place for a business like the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name withheld to avoid the wrath of the franchise).  Over the last decade plus, we’ve enjoyed good customers, wonderful friends, and mostly amicable competition with the other printers in town.

For our company and for our competitors, business as usual ended abruptly in November of 2008. The stock market crashed, our customers contracted and folded, and sales plummeted.  Monthly newsletters went digital; nevermore to return. Businesses decided that they could do without printing. Our friendly bankers, once eager to finance new equipment purchases, now wouldn’t return phone calls. Yet we hung on and tried to do what we could, hoping and praying for better days.

An interview in the PrintCEO blog tells the sad story of the demise of Alonzo Printing, a midsized California operation that seemed to be doing everything right. The owner, Jim Duffy, describes the heady days of 2007 with new equipment investments, diversification into digital printing, and the difficulties of turning a marketing vision into reality.  Jim didn’t have to step on a mine.  His bank detonated it for him.

In our sleepy southern town, we were all holding on until just a couple of weeks ago. Sure, a couple of small printers have closed, but they were operating with 30 year old systems.  Two weeks ago, one of our better competitors announced that they were suspending their production operations and would continue as a print broker. Last week, a promising short run book printer literally disappear overnight.  The mines are exploding all around us.

Our little company is treading very carefully. Like Alonzo printing, we made new equipment purchases when times were better. Some of these have not played out well. Equipment vendors, banks and even the franchise, once seen as allies, now look more like the enemy. The path through the minefield is complicated and dangerous and there is no lack of diversions that could cause a misstep.

Poor Richard is convinced that one of these is the whole “marketing services” concept. In the PrintCEO interview, Jim Duffy makes the following comment:

We marketed Alonzo, and from a pure marketing perspective, it was just a dream. And yet, it was another issue of not having the right people to make it really come to life. Then we reached the point where we couldn’t hire the right people. That’s how you get caught in the spiral.

You do need to market yourself; you need to do it in a way that’s going to be meaningful for your clients.

The last sentence is telling. Printers are not viewed by our customers as “marketers.” That is the realm of advertising agencies. With due respect and apologies to our agency customers, printers are not “pie in the sky” folks. We don’t do well with concept. Coming up with concepts that work requires a lot of time and creativity that a short-staffed printing company doesn’t have.

Printing companies do a very good job with details, with implementation.  If “marketing service provider” means that we have to dream up the marketing concepts for our customers, we’re in trouble. If it means that we implement and measure marketing “campaigns” using the new tools that are available to us, then perhaps we can provide our customers with something that is of value, that is meaningful.

Poor Richard is not certain what it will take for some of us to make it out of the minefield, nor is he certain that the printshop on Poplar Street won’t be blown to smithereens during the debacle. I hold to the hope that there will be a need for companies like mine that “do stuff,” that are competent at producing and implementing.

There is a certain sense of desperation that naturally occurs when one strolls the path through a minefield. Traveling the path requires care, tenacity, and not a small bit of prayer. There is also the possibility that the trail will eventually lead to un-mined pastures that allow more flexibility to move around and maybe some better possibilities for small businesses like mine. Poor Richard is really looking forward to the other side of the minefield.


The Recurring Full Moon Phenomena

March 3, 2010

The stuff that dogs howl about

It’s been a while. I’ve been out of sorts with nothing good to say, so I’ve ignored the blog altogether. After a couple of good months at the end of 2009, Poor Richard fell back into panic mode as business disintegrated at the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street. January 2010 was bleak. I had just begun a serious study of biblical eschatology when the last day of February rolled around and all of our customers woke up at the same time.

I’m thinking it’s the moon. I’ve written about this before (see Poor Richard’s post The Full Moon). Last time, I discussed the deleterious effects of  minute changes in the force of gravity on machines and those who operate them. This time, I’d like to consider the tidal effect on the minds of the folks who visit our Gralpharaphics “business center.” (The franchise, who shall nevermore be named in this blog, became disenchanted with printshops a year or two ago and decided that we would henceforth become “business centers.”)

The moon was full on February 28th and the orders came rolling in. All of the work that our customers had decided they didn’t need in January and the first 27 days of February, they now needed immediately on March 1st.  It’s not that the tight deadlines are all that unusual, but there were small oddities about several of the orders. Just for entertainment, Poor Richard is pleased to provide you with a few snippets from the past couple of days:

“I gave you my business card as a .jpg. What do you mean you can’t blow it up into a 24 x 36 poster?”

“My last printer closed down. I had been doing this business with him for a while and he wasn’t charging me much. I was hoping that you’d be less expensive.”

“No, the order for 10,000 rack cards went to another shop; but we need you to donate 1,000 posters. Is that a problem?”

“All of their salespeople quit. They decided not to do the mailout because there wouldn’t be anyone to respond to the leads.”

It’s not quite the Twilight Zone, but things are a little bizarre. I answered the phone at lunchtime on Friday. “Do you do raffle tickets?” queried the voice on the line.

“Yes, ma’am, we’ve been known to,” I responded.

“Well, how much do they cost?” said the voice. Even with the sure knowledge that I could not be seen through the telephone, Poor Richard made a conscious effort not to roll my eyes and began to launch into his memorized series of questions regarding quantity, size, paper, numbering, perforations, etc.; only to be interrupted in mid sentence:

“My baby’s in a pageant, and I just need some raffle tickets.”

What kind of person raffles off their baby in a pageant?

We delivered 5000 sets of a stapled document to a customer on Friday – 4 sheets, 2 sides, stapled. This morning they called and said that they had counted the order and were 25 sets short. Poor Richard found it peculiar that anyone would actually take the time to count 5000 sets of copies and also a little dubious that they were short. The job is simple and familiar. We send the file to the big black and white machine manufactured by the nearly palindromatic company that begins and ends with X. The quantity is specified in the print job. The machine prints and staples, the documents are boxed and delivered. The machine log indicates that 5005 copies were produced. Poor Richard is certain that the missing 30 copies were transported into a parallel universe.

About the poster sized business card . . .  we printed it. When we explained that it would not print clearly at 24 x 36, we were instructed to repeat it as many times as possible on a 24 x 36 board. We printed it 90 times with a pretty blue background on a nice piece of foamcore for the customer to put on an easel.

It may be the full moon, or  perhaps terrorists have injected hallucinogenic drugs into the water supply in Macon. Poor Richard isn’t sure, but he’s happy to be busy even if the orders are a little odd.

Isn’t life grand?


Inevitable

July 20, 2009

When we opened our Gralpharaphics (name altered to protect the sensibilities of the franchise) shop in 1998, one of the thoughts that passed fleetingly through Poor Richard’s feeble brain was that this was an industry that was “WalMart-proof.” Printing is just too technical and complex, he thought. They’d never want to get in this business. Wrong!

evil walmart greeterLast week, WalMart and PNI Digital Media of Canada announced a partnership that will feature printed products and ad specialties for small business as part of WalMart’s Online Photo Centre. The new product features will be rolled out in Canada only . . .for now. See the GraphicArts Online Press Release.

Being of a curious nature, Poor Richard had to check out the site. At first, I was slightly encouraged.  The site is template driven, much like VistaPrint and the other online megaprinters. Business cards are prominently featured with a special offer at $49.99 for 500.  This is no great deal, especially after you add shipping, lead times and PITA factor. Then I dug into the details, checking the other items listed. Uh oh . . . WalMart’s rolling back prices, again. Get your printing here for cheap. Factor in the Canadian exchange rate ($1.10 Canadian to $1 US) and it’s really ridiculous.

Poor Richard has railed against WalMart before (see Why We Need Small Business Part 1 and Part 2). The company has a ruthless history when it comes to small business, driving out local businesses with low prices to gain dominance in every market they enter. Worse yet, WalMart has become part of the American ethos . . . we’re so addicted to the perception of cheap that Joe Consumer is overjoyed when the opening of a new Super WalMart is announced for his community. Poor Richard thinks that it’s tantamount to issuing an invitation to the Visigoths to vacation in Rome or encouraging the high school rake to have his way with your teenage daughter. But perhaps I’m indulging in hyperbole.

I feel very secure that those who shop for printing at WalMart will get the value that they pay for and that they deserve. I am very curious as to how the mega retailer will implement solutions at their customer service counters to the problems that are so peculiar to printing.  Will Joe Consumer, who ordered blue printing and received purple, really be able to get satisfaction from Louise with her bouffant hairdo and cat’s eye glasses? And will he be willing to wait in line for 30 minutes before he finds out that she’s colorblind?

It’s inevitable, and it is unfortunate that small businesses, especially the new ones that are forming in this poor economy, will gravitate toward WalMart’s print services. It may not occur to many of them to look for another small business that might actually become a valuable partner. They may or may not learn the value of relationships in their community, but it is equally inevitable that they will come to resent the mega businesses like WalMart that sap the potential from every market they enter.

Thanks to whoever created the evil Walmart greeter. It’s floating around all over the web and I love it.


OK, Let’s see if we can get this straight

July 8, 2009

“My sorority is sponsoring a beauty pageant,” says the well spoken young lady at the counter, “we’d like you to do the program for us.”

“And we’d love to do the program,” says Poor Richard, because this is exactly the kind of job that the printshop behind the red awnings (Gralpharaphics . . . use of real name discouraged by the franchise) does really well.

“Can you give me an idea of how much it will cost?” asks the young lady.

It’s a very reasonable question. We discuss paper, whether the booklet will be in color or in black and white, and who will be doing the layout. Everything’s coming together smoothly until Poor Richard asks the devastating question, “and approximately how many pages will it have?”

The sorority president opens her mouth and all of a sudden she’s speaking Chinese and Poor Richard is speaking Latin! Neither of us understand the other. Finally in exasperation, she holds up her fingers. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . counts Poor Richard.

“Es tut mir leid, aber Bücher mit sieben Seiten kommen nicht,” exclaims Poor Richard. Booklets don’t come with seven pages (or if they do, p. 8 is blank).

“Jeg er redd JEG ikke gjør det oppfatte i det hele tatt,” responds the young lady in Norwegian. She doesn’t understand at all.

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” I ask with a smile on my face.

It happens all the time. A customer is counting sheets and I’m counting pages. I get 16 and she gets 4. Let’s see if we can get this straight.  We’re going to look at a quickly designed sheet with four pages on it.

page

Single Page

So, here’s Page 1. We’re going to assume that the finished size of our little folding document is the size of a standard sheet of paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches.  That means that a page measures 8 1/2 x 11 inches.

A page is printed on one side and in many (but not all) publications is assigned a number.  Page numbers are very convenient if you wish to use a table of contents or list topics in an index at the back of a book.  They’re also extremely helpful to the folks who operate the bindery equipment that puts booklets together. It’s their responsibility to make sure that Page 5 follows Page 4 and is succeeded by Page 6.

Our illustration uses only one sheet, but the same principles follow in a larger booklet, which by definition has more 8 pages/2 sheets or more. Typically, a booklet is stapled or saddle stitched in the center. Because there are four pages to a sheet and all of the sheets collate (nest) together and are folded to make a booklet, this means that arranging the pages on the sheets is an art unto itself. This arrangement is called imposition. The sheet size for an 8 page booklet with a finished size of 8 1/2 x 11 is 11 x 17. Two pages are positioned side by side on each side of each sheet. 4 pages are positioned on each sheet (2 to a side). In an 8 page booklet, page 1 and page 8 would be positioned on the same side of the same sheet. Page 1 is the front page and page 8 is the last. On the inside of the sheet would be pages 2 and 7. This arrangement is called a printer’s spread and is probably a little further on up the road than we want to go in this post.

Inside Spread/Reader's Spread

Inside Spread/Reader's Spread

So, back to our illustration. Here are pages 2 and 3, which take up the inside of the sheet.  In a booklet, these would be the center spread and because the pages are in order, the spread is called a reader’s spread. In a booklet with more than one sheet, the pages in a reader’s spread would actually lie on different sheets. The center spread always contains two sequential pages on the same side of one sheet. This is a good thing to know for designers, because it’s always safe to place an image across the pages on the center spread.  It might not work so well on other pages where the alignment of the sheets may not be exact. Confused yet?

OK, two pages on one side of a sheet. Now let’s look at the other side of the sheet.

Outside Pages/Printers Spread

Outside Pages/Printers Spread

You’ve seen Page one earlier in this post. In our example, page one is backed by Page 2 and Page 4 is backed by Page 3. Four pages to a sheet.  In a booklet, fronts and backs will always be sequential, but left and right facing pages (on the same side of the sheet) will only be sequential on the center spread. Now you understand why the sorority president was speaking Norwegian.

Here’s the good news . . . you don’t have to worry about imposition. Deliver your booklet to your printer in page order (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) and let them worry about setting it up for print.  We’ve done it before and we’ll usually get it right.

Here’s what you should remember from all of this . . .

  • A page is what you read. One side finished size. One half of one side of a sheet.
  • 4 pages to a sheet in a booklet
  • Tell your printer how many pages, not how many sheets.
  • Use your fingers and get an interpreter if necessary.

Finally, page numbers are good. When you’re thoroughly confused you can just check the page numbers to find out if everything is in order. Verstanden?

Isn’t life grand?

Insincere apologies to Brian, Todd and the memory of Alfalfa.


Squelched

June 15, 2009

SQUELCHEDSo maybe I’ve crossed the line. I never intended this blog to belittle or to  be demeaning and certainly not to frighten off a customer who might consider coming into our printshop. The phone call I received from the franchise just a little over a week ago led me to believe that I may have done all three. It was from the new marketing director, a person I had never encountered before. She began by asking questions about the blog . . . what was it’s purpose?

I explained that it was mostly for fun, partially therapy, and that I occasionally write about something that is substantively related to printing.  The marketing director didn’t beat around the bush, but explained that the franchise was concerned with a negative tone toward customers and about the adverse impact it might have on their brand. She also stated that the franchise would do whatever was necessary to protect their brand. I understood that part clearly.

We didn’t argue. I did ask if she had read the blog and didn’t receive an answer that indicated she was very familiar with it. Mostly I listened and ultimately concluded that the best way to make sure that the franchise was not threatened was simply not to ever mention them in my blog again. This is admittedly problematic, since our printshop is usually recognized by the franchise moniker (begins with A, 2 syllables, second syllable is “graphics”), but I guess I’ll have to live with it.

Mind you, it did occur to me that marketing directors were supposed to be about marketing their business, not squelching such efforts. It also occurred to me (and I even mentioned this to the nice lady) that whatever recognition the brand name has in Middle Georgia is largely due to the efforts of my company.  That’s probably all irrelevant, though.  Besides,  the franchise has never really been very good at marketing.  Operations, yes . . . marketing, no.

So, I have a quandary and a conundrum. How can I continue to blog about my printshop without mentioning the name? I guess it will just have to be a game.  While I won’t mentioned the name A_____G______s any more, many of you will know where I work. Poor Richard might also mention the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street. Or perhaps we’ll take a lead from the artist formerly known as Prince and just use some mysterious glyphs, like this, Ω&♣ζ±. Or maybe we’ll take a cue from Scooby Doo and call it GralphaRaphics.

I hope that many of you will continue to frequent Ω&♣ζ± and visit us at the place with a more recognizable name on the red awnings. To anyone who has been offended, I do offer my sincere apologies; and also the consolation that it probably wasn’t you that you thought you were reading about.  To my good customers, I offer continued thanks and the promise that we really, really do appreciate the business you do with us.

Finally, Poor Richard recommends a strong dose of humor to all of those who occasionally read these paragraphs. I really hope that you don’t take it all too seriously . . . I surely don’t.

Signing off from the printshop next to Grant’s Lounge in lovely downtown Macon!

–Poor Richard


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