Which end’s up?

March 8, 2012

ImageI came across this odd photo of a school bus in Google Images and felt like it was fairly representative of life during these past months . . . completely impossible to figure out which end should be up.

Actually Poor Richard was very surprised to see that some random readers still encounter this blog from time to time. I began this effort years ago with the intent of providing humor and occasional entertaining messages of relevance to Poor Richard’s business, an A__ha_ra_hi_s franchise. (I still can’t post the name in the blog, in abject fear of provoking the ire of Saruman in his minions, who reside in Orthanc, the ivory tower located in Utah or thereabouts.  But wait, that’s another story altogether, isn’t it?)

For the past few months, I’ve been following my mother’s admonition: if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.  To assert that the printing business has changed is not just an understatement, it’s an offense against the obvious.  It would be lovely to offer that we’ve charted a new course and are off to grand adventures with a revitalized business.  Alas, that is not reality.  We have tried about everything with our little business in our little town, and very little has worked.  Today, we are struggling with a very small staff, battling deteriorating volumes and prices, losing lots of money, and praying for miracles.

The topsy-turvy bus is actually a good image for this post and these times.  The idealism of past years could be represented by the upside-down wheels on top.  We’re still driving the bottom half, which is anchored to the ground by gravity; but I’m wondering how long the tires and the engine will hold out.


Rumination

October 22, 2010

Sometimes we get too busy to ask the why questions.  We just swallow all that’s in front of us, without digesting, and go on along with the whatever that we have to deal with at the time.

I like Chik-fil-A.  There’s a lot to be said for cows and they do make great chicken sandwich advocates. There might also be something in their digestive systems that’s worthy of investigation. Rumination . . . chewing the cud. Cow’s swallow it first, then chew it up later before finally digesting it.

“Gross” would be the response of my 14 year old daughter, Madeline; and she may well be right.  After the grass is consumed, why bring it back up for re-examination? Even if there’s something to be learned, the whole process seems just a little . . . ummmh, nauseating?

Nonetheless, here we go . . .

Poor Richard’s Printshop (formerly something like Gralphagraphics before the franchise became incensed at his blog) has been reasonably busy since late August. At least, it feels busy because there are only a few of us to get the work out the doors and we’re all working very hard. I’m very thankful for this and appreciative especially of the customers who have stuck with us through all of  the “recent unpleasantness.”

It’s a little hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something about the work we’re getting that’s just different.  As an example, we printed 50 football program books this week just in time for the last game of the regular season. Football programs used to be a big deal . . . large saddle stitched booklets with lots of ads printed in decent runs in time for the first game of the season. This one was thrown together as an afterthought, perhaps to keep the businesses who purchased ads from asking for their money back?

Two weeks ago, we printed a very nice invitation for a health care customer.  Expensive paper, process color, good press run, scored and folded, tabbed 3 times to meet USPS specs and mailed at the very last minute, probably a week later than optimum to reach the target audience.

We have an end of the fiscal year audit booklet in-house for a municipality whose fiscal year ended June 30. We thought the book was due by September 30. It’s been stuck in our hold bin for over 2 weeks, waiting on revisions from the customer.

And then there are the envelopes printed for a communications company in a hurry, that have been sitting on the shelf waiting for pickup since October 5; the business card design for the new company that had their grand opening scheduled for October 11; and the display board and banner stand that actually did get designed, proofed, completed and shipped in 5 working days, thanks to UPS Second Day Air and our very good tradeshow exhibit supplier.

Actually, it’s not hard to identify what’s happening at all. It’s busy, but it’s not normal and Poor Richard’s stomach is a little upset.  We are reacting to our customers’ lack of planning and in some cases we’re getting burned and in some cases they’re getting burned, which is worse. (It’s worse mainly because we might take the blame.)

Our customers are firing before they aim. This is probably better for us than when they don’t fire at all, but I think there might be a better way.  It’s something to ruminate about . . .


So Much for Whiz Bang

May 6, 2010

supercolliding superconductorIt’s funny and a little strange how bits of information collide to make us believe that we really can draw a conclusion about this, that or the other. Life these days is a bit like zooming around in the supercolliding superconductor gadget that the Swiss built. We’re moving at speeds approaching the velocity of light and God only knows what will happen if we run into a wayward quark or hadron or something like that. If we’re not really careful about the whole thing, we could blow up the whole dang universe (for real, check this out).

Poor Richard paid a visit to some of his favorite folks in the advertising world the other day. Perhaps that’s a bit broad. Like the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, my good agency customers exist and attempt to survive in the rarified atmosphere that is Macon, GA (100% humidity all the time). So, in actuality, they are only a part of the advertising “world” in the same sense that Poor Richard’s Printshop is a part of the printing “world.”  Despite our attempts to become a part of the web-connected supercolliding universe, we’re mostly operating in a small town microcosm.

We’ve always told the traveling salesmen who venture down from Atlanta that they should pull off I-75 at the Griffin, GA exit and set their clocks back 25 years.  And for a while, that was true. But these days, our little community is living in a time warp. We’d really like it to be 1980, because we think we understood things back then; but we realize it’s 2010 and we don’t understand that at all.  We can’t keep up with the quarks and neutrinos. They move too fast.

Back to my agency friends. When social networking came about, they dived in head first. They learned about SEO, SEM and Google AdWords. They saw tremendous potential in the simple idea that Facebook and Twitter might actually enable organizations to talk directly with their customers and prospects (and learn something).  Simply put, the new ideas didn’t really take hold in the rarified humidity. My friends tried to introduce quantum physics to the Newtonian world.  Or perhaps they were more like Galileo, who, after failing to convince the Inquisitors of the validity of the heliocentric model of the universe, left muttering “Eppur si muove” (but it does move).

But wait . . . maybe our little time warped microcosm didn’t completely miss  the boat.  Here’s another wayward particle in the supercollider. The header from the Print in the Mix  Fast Fact article reads, “Marketers Indicate Social Media Important, Most Not Profiting.” The short article cites a survey conducted by R2Integrated, an internet marketing company. Of 262 marketing professionals surveyed:

  • 54% thought social media was “innovative and invaluable to their business.
  • 37% thought it was “useful and helpful,” but could live without it.
  • 65% said that their companies had not increased revenue or profited using social media.

The whole idea of these new marketing tools is to make money, right? And isn’t measurability one of the big advantages of social media marketing?  Could there be a disconnect between what these professionals think and what they measure? There are at least 11% of these folks (and maybe more) who think that the new media are invaluable to their business, but aren’t making money. Did they forget to measure or are they just guessing?

Poor Richard thinks that all of these hypercharged electrons flying around are generating static. So much static that it’s difficult to get a clear message through, much less a clear picture of what we’re doing. The big marketing professionals may be trying new stuff and guessing, but around here it’s different. All of the static may have helped confuse our customers into complete inaction, a decision reinforced by an economy that has left few of us with the resources to try anything new.

I’ve always liked “whiz bang,” but the new initiatives our little business has introduced during these past 18 months of Decession (Repression?) have failed to gain traction.  We made a tentative foray into the “marketing solutions provider” realm only to discover that marketing solutions are only needed by those who really intend to conduct marketing.  That’s not happening here in the time warp. Our customers may understand that their 1980s programs aren’t working like they used to and that they should be doing something different. That “something different” is hard to comprehend through the static, though. It’s much easier just to do nothing, which leaves Poor Richard’s printshop and our agency friends spinning our wheels in the slippery Georgia red clay. The excited particles are passing us by. So much for whiz bang.


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.


Opening Pandora’s box

January 3, 2010

It’s been a while since Poor Richard has written about proofing (see Just Do It . . . I Trust You!). At the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we generally follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1: Proof Everything. When we fail to follow Rule #1, it is usually because the owner decides to make an exception, allows one of our customers to convince him that they do not need a proof, and gets totally burned in the process because something goes awry or does not meet the customer’s expectations.

If the CIA was really intelligent, they would store all of their Top Secret, classified, very sensitive documents in the basements of printshops across this great nation. Because we see so much text come past our eyes, printers don’t really read much of it.  At Gralpharaphics (name changed to protect the delicate sensitivity of the franchise), we used to do internal proofs of hard copy prints for much of what went through the shop. We were looking for low resolution graphics and the general composition of each piece ; whether it would fold correctly and if there were font errors.  Today, for much of what we print, preflight software will indicate many of the technical errors and our internal proofing process is focused more on how the piece will finish (through bindery) than the general composition. In short, we don’t read for context and we don’t always catch spelling errors.

The phone call of the month for December was from a customer that had discovered a typo in a brochure we had printed for them . . . in September. In fact, it was an exact repeat of the same job printed for them about a year before.  And that job was a redesign of a file that came to us in .pdf format sometimes shortly after Adobe Acrobat was invented, opening the possibility that the misspelling could potentially be over a decade old.  Naturally, the customer wanted the job reprinted . . . for free.

We checked the proofs. Sure enough, there was the typo buried plain as day right in the middle of a long paragraph in the center panel of the inside of the brochure. It stood out dramatically in 11 point Times New Roman; so evident that the customer missed it totally when they signed off on the proof.

Who has the responsibility? Proofs do place the onus of responsibility for the final appearance and accuracy of each printed piece on the customer. This is customary in the printing trade and spelled out clearly in the proof policy that our shop sends with every proof.  While some customers may see this as a catch, printers consider it a necessity. Even if we could completely check everything we print for absolute accuracy, this would not compensate for the vagaries of syntax, composition or customer taste. There have been many occasions where Poor Richard or one of my associates has corrected grammar or spelling only to have it uncorrected by the customer. Likewise, the design or composition of many of the projects we print may be more pleasing to our customer than to our unrefined tastes.  This really is the critical point for most printers: the project must meet the approval of the customer. The signed proof signifies that it does.

Back to the problem of the month. Another of Poor Richard’s rules that falls pretty near the top of the list (like #2 maybe) is this: Customers are important. These days, they’re also pretty darn hard to come by.  We understood the customer’s problem and offered to help them with the reprint.  Mind you, this is not customary practice among printers. Margins are very tight in our business and printing at cost is spinning the wheels at best and at worst a missed opportunity for profitable use of time and equipment. Nonetheless, customers are important. We offered to make the correction and reprint at a discount.

After the correction was made, the competent Gralpharaphics team followed Poor Richard’s Rule #1 and sent the customer a final proof for approval. At least, we thought that it was final. The proof was returned with a request for another change.  Technically, this request crossed the fine line between correction and revision, but the change requested was minor and we chose not to sweat it. That’s when we opened Pandora’s box. We made the revision and sent another proof.

The proof response came back with a Microsoft Word file attached. We were now well beyond correction and decidedly in the realm of revision.   Poor Richard tried not to reach the conclusion that the customer’s stated need — to correct a typo — might not have been their actual objective. Without questioning the customer’s motives, we explained that the discount had been offered to help with a correction. The scope of the revisions requested had essentially changed the project from a reprint to something like creating a new brochure.  We would have to charge for the additional layout and prepress time incurred for the changes.

There are times when Poor Richard is able to predict the future before it even happens. I could see this spinning out of control even without a crystal ball. The conversation was polite, the customer didn’t really understand, and the project was placed on (permanent) hold.  Chances are that we lost a customer. Bummer. Not good.

Because we’re a small business in a small market, we’ve never had the luxury of dealing only with professional “print buyers;” folks whose expectations are to some extent shaped by their understanding of and interest in the art of printing. We have had the privilege of working with some very nice folks, many of whom wanted to learn a little about print as we produced their projects. I think that there was a general appreciation among our customers of the value of the tangible product we created and of the work that went into it; but now this appreciation may be fading.

The last 18 months of struggle have brought a sea change to the printing industry and to local printers like the shop on Poplar Street.  While we continue to compete with one another for business, we also compete against a host of other choices for communication. Increasingly, our customers’ expectations are molded by the other choices. It’s no problem to correct a typo on a web page. It doesn’t require a reprint. The fact is that we have fewer customers who are interested in print and they are much less willing to deal with the complexities involved.  Price and speed have become more important and many customers are actually less concerned with quality than ever before. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, “they don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.”

This presents a real challenge to folks like Poor Richard. The old rules of printing (like proof policies) seem necessary to me. It is important to do things right and because almost all of the projects we produce are essentially custom made, there has to be some understanding between printers and our customers.  We can’t sell labels produced for Jim Bob’s BBQ Sauce to his competitor Billy Bob.  If Jim Bob doesn’t want the labels, they’re trash.

How do we adapt? As our customers become increasingly less patient with the print process, it is tempting to just bend the rules and take our chances.  Waive the proofs, forget the rules, just print it and hope it’s right. Throw Pandora’s box wide open.

If we do that, how long will it take for the snakes inside to bite us?


Very Cautiously Optimistic?

November 26, 2009

It’s Thanksgiving, and Poor Richard is thankful for a day off. It’s been over a month since I’ve written here. And it’s been a busy span of time. Poor Richard is very thankful for that and for the good customers who have provided work for all of us at the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name withheld to protect the very delicate sensibilities of the franchise).

Crossed FingersMy fingers would be crossed if I had time to cross them.  I’m thankful that our business has been able to survive through this so far, and if business doesn’t tank again in the first months of 2010, we’ll probably pull through OK. OK doesn’t mean unscathed, though. We’re operating with fewer employees that we had when the company first opened in 1998. There is little time to work on the business for working in the business. Because our bank essentially bailed out on us early in the year, there is no money for investment in new technology or new talent. Assuming that the recovery has begun, it’s still going to take a long while to make up the lost ground of the last 18 months.

Last week, Mr. Obama’s administration stealthily held a small business forum to discuss “small business financing issues.”  The forum was announced to the public on November 16, two days prior to the date of the session and received resounding condemnation from at least one group (American Small Business League) representing small business who were neither notified of the event nor invited to attend.  Hosted by Treasury Secretary Geithner, the forum did not generate much excitement or much in the way of reporting after the fact.

That’s because nothing happened. Poor Richard managed to find the agenda for the meeting on the Treasury Department web site.  There’s nothing new there. The efforts of the SBA to open up credit for small business have been lacking and the banks have not been cooperative.  A change in the tax code to allow a 5 year carryback of losses may inject some cash into small businesses next year; but for those who have already failed it is too little, too late. At least 7 small business owners (bios listed on the Treasury site) were invited to the forum and the transcript of Secretary Geithner’s remarks contained several weighty statements, like the following:

“We need banks to be working with us, not against recovery.”

Little was reported in the press or on the internet from the day-long forum. According to a New York Times blog, most of the discussion centered on the needs of banks and their reluctance to get involved with small business.  They also stated that the Treasury Secretary and the SBA Administrator took careful notes. A report from Small Business Trends concluded that, “many lenders contend that small-business loans are too time-consuming and too small to be worth their while.” Hmmm . . .

The small business sector has long been our country’s engine for job growth and for innovation. Guess what? Small businesses are where large businesses come from. Hewlett-Packard started in a Palo Alto, CA garage. Ford Motor Company was launched in a converted wagon shop with a $31,000 investment.  In typical years, small businesses create over 50% of the new jobs in our economy.  In years like the last one, we try to preserve jobs for the folks who depend on us. The economic engine has choked down.

Nonetheless, small business owners are a fairly optimistic group. We have to be. None of us  are really looking for a bailout. Nor do we place a lot of trust in the machinations of government. Our businesses are made or broken by the decisions we make and with the risk we assume.  We have to be optimistic, tenacious, and now cautious. Many of us will come out of this with a healthy distrust and dislike of the banks who were anxious to provide funding for growth in good times but not so willing to help us survive when times got tough.  We will be less inclined to assume debt to finance growth and we will be careful about how debt is assumed.  Many of us will need to repay debt generated during the recession before we expand again.  It may take some time for small businesses to re-start the engines that produce growth and new jobs.

I suppose that I shouldn’t find the administration’s dispassion toward the small business sector particularly surprising. It makes as much sense as taking over GM with the stated goal of restructuring the  company to produce economical and fuel efficient vehicles and then promptly shuttering the Saturn division (which made economical and fuel efficient vehicles). But perhaps the worst really is over and we’ll make it on our own.

Maybe I should find time to cross my fingers.


Re-inventeration

September 6, 2009

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at www.codinghorror.com.

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at http://www.codinghorror.com.

If one happens to be a small business owner, especially if one happens to be the owner of a local printing company, the idea of re-inventing one’s business is probably pretty far up on the agenda these days. This is primarily because much of the business we all once enjoyed has suddenly just disappeared, as if by magic; or possibly due to the re-inventing of a much less cooperative economy.

Re-inventeration, a new word which Poor Richard thinks he has just coined, is the process of re-inventing something.  Of course, the whole concept is preposterous.  If something is invented the first time, does it really make any sense to try to re-invent it?

And it’s complicated. Re-inventeration is frought with Catch-22 scenarios. For those who have not read Joseph Heller’s famous book, the Catch-22 was the ultimate bureaucratic boondoggle.  Catch-22 (the book) told the story of Yossarian, a WWII B-25 bombardier and his squadron, as they were forced to fly increasing numbers of bombing runs over Italy.  The squadron commander, Major Major, literally embodied the concept of Catch-22. It was possible to schedule an appointment with Major Major at any time; however, one could only actually see Major Major if he was not in.

Similarly, if one was deemed insane, it was possible to get discharged from the Air Corps. Because Yossarian’s desire for discharge was deemed very sane, his insane behavior was considered by his superiors as a natural expression of his  true sanity. Catch 22.

Not unlike Yossarian, Poor Richard is struggling with the Catch-22s of the re-inventeration process at his downtown Macon Gralpharaphics shop (name carefully disguised to protect the sensibilities of the franchise). The first Catch-22 is simply time.  Business is down, we’ve cut back on staff, and more time is spent working in the business than on the business.  Without more time to work on the business, we’ll never be able to grow the business back to a point where more folks can be hired to work in the business; relieving the requirement for the owner to fold brochures until 2 am and allowing him to use his brain once again.

The next and more worrisome set of  Catch(es)-22 have to do with scope, the literal definition of the business. Behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we’re taking jobs that we probably wouldn’t have looked at a couple of years ago.  A lot of these are small and risky.  The risk is that the expense in time and effort to produce the small jobs will exceed the revenue that results. Catch 22. The potential benefit is a new customer who might actually bring us a profitable job one day. Poor Richard is not sure how this one is playing out.

The low hanging fruit has been picked. We’ve responded to economic pressure on mainstay product lines by adding more products. In our case, we’ve added wide format printing and reprographics to subsidize some of the losses in conventional offset printing.   These were natural additions – similar products and services to what we were already doing. They didn’t disrupt the production process much and they added little in the way of expense. Unfortunately, they did not add enough revenue to compensate for the decline in conventional printing; and these product lines are also facing economic and competitive pressures. Catch 22.

So what’s the next step? Poor Richard has written before (with misgivings) about the current buzz-phrase in the printing industry. The latest rage is for printing companies to become marketing service providers. (See Poor Richard’s post Measuring Value). Our little company  is moving in this direction slowly but steadily, unsure of all of the implications, but with a sense that it is inevitable – there just aren’t many other areas of opportunity left.

Becoming a marketing service provider is full of Catch(es)-22. First, the whole notion takes us out of the realm of producing tangible products and into the area of shaping content. We’re no longer working with machinery that prints, cuts or folds stuff; but rather with electronic means of communication and the disciplines that go along with them – CSS, XHTML, Purls and a bunch of other acronyms. The competitive cost of entry into this business is low relative to the cost of a new printing press, which means that the pressure to keep ahead of the technology curve will be steep. Worse, the marketing service provider notion requires a new skill set that takes time to learn.  In our case, that’s the owner’s time that is in very short supply. Catch 22.

Second, the whole idea of shaping content laps over into creating content.  Printing companies are pretty good at shaping. We do layout work, color correct photos, even occasionally light editing for our customers. This is different from creating the content, an area we have generally avoided because of time limitations and a focus on keeping the machines running.

It’s just a little too hopeful to think that we might make money only by implementing marketing services — integrated direct mail and e-mail campaigns, for example. Most of our customers simply lack the time and resources to develop the content for this kind of effort, so it appears inevitable that we will be required to do some development work for them if we want to sell the services.

Hopefully we can do this without stepping on the toes of our agency customers and triggering yet another Catch 22. Ideally, the agencies might find it helpful to use our shop to implement integrated direct mail and internet campaigns for their larger customers. Our challenge will be keeping the focus on implementation (and measurement) of specific marketing services without getting customers confused about what we can do (and want to do).

Creating content, even on a limited basis, is a big step for a small printing company; but it is still a lot different from the conceptual work that our agency customers do. We can make that statement, but will our customers understand it?  Another Catch-22.

Poor Richard supposes that re-inventeration, like change, is necessary and unavoidable; but he hopes he’s not re-inventing a square-wheeled tricycle.