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.

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.

Crazy People

November 19, 2008

The screen on all of our phones is displaying 911 followed by my name. It’s a panic button feature. When 911 is dialed from any of the phones on the system, every phone in the place lights up and blinks with the extension from which the emergency number was dialed. This is so everyone in the place can go to the aid of the user dialing 911. Obviously my emergency wasn’t too dire . . . or nobody paid attention to it. Brian pointed the emergency feature out to me a day and a half later.

I had dialed 911 because of the crazy people in Poplar Street Park. They were fighting again. This time it was a man and a woman who began with a high volume shouting match, clearly audible to me across the street on the second floor of AlphaGraphics towers. I looked out the window to witness the development of a full fledged altercation: tearing of clothes, fighting, scratching and finally rolling around on the sidewalk.

The 911 operator didn’t seem at all disturbed when I called. “911, please state your emergency,” came the calm voice over the receiver.

“The crazy people are fighting again in Poplar Street Park,” I replied. I think I heard the faintest sigh from the other end of the receiver.

“We’ll send someone over,” the voice replied. The fight was over soon enough and I never saw a police car.

I don’t really have a great objection to the crazy people that inhabit the park, except when they’re drinking or fighting. We’ve never had much walk in traffic and most of my customers know to park on our side of Poplar Street to avoid the panhandling and the comments. I’ve never been threatened and by now they know that if they ask for money, I’ll offer to feed them. Most of them don’t really want food. I think that there should be a better place for them to stay than the park, but some of them don’t want that either.

We’ve gotten to know a few of them. There’s the lady who comes into the shop once or twice a week. She buys paper by the sheet to draw on and insists on paying for it. She’ll ask for a specific number of sheets and always wants a receipt for her purchase. She also likes plastic bags . . . two of them each time. She was fascinated by our display cabinet and helped herself to samples of our work until we discovered what she was doing. She liked the colors.

Then there’s Jeff. He’s a singer. He carries the names of all of the songs he knows on sheets of notepaper that once were bound together in a spiral pad. If you give him a dollar bill, he’ll sing you any of the songs. He’ll give you a sample verse for free. He can’t carry a tune in a bucket . . . but don’t tell him I said so.

Jeff came in for business cards the other day. He took about 20 minutes at the front counter to compose the content. The finished product had his name and the services he offered: DJ, lawn and garden work, weddings, auto cleaning, and short-term loans – zero interest. Jeff has no address or phone number. I pointed out that this might pose a problem for potential clients who wanted to get in touch. Jeff didn’t seem concerned about this. I also pointed out that there was little profit margin in a zero interest loan. This was a mistake on my part. Jeff took another 5 minutes to graphically illustrate (using long multiplication and division) how it was possible to turn $5 into $900 in a few simple transactions with no interest charged. He even offered to help me do it if I’d contribute $5 to the cause.

I also have to give homage due to Dr. H. I’m not sure exactly where the doctor earned his PhD, or exactly what his area of expertise is, but I am reasonably certain that at one time Dr. H did receive an education. He has a wonderful command of the English language and is even eloquent when he speaks. He has the bearing (if not the cleanliness, coiffure or wardrobe) of a college professor. His area of specialty is conspiracy theories. For a while, he came daily to copy tedious, hand-written complaints to city officials regarding all sorts of injustices that were perpetrated or planned. I understand that he has occasionally appeared at City Council meetings to read his discovered plots into the public record.

Dr. H is also an artist. In a moment of weakness I was convinced to actually scan and print one of his newsprint collages on signboard. He wanted me to deliver it for him to the Salvation Army, where he was staying that evening. When I told him that this didn’t really fit into our delivery plans, he became irritated with me. I haven’t seen him since. I’ve kept the print, though. Maybe it will be as valuable as a Howard Fenster one day.

homelessLike I said, I really don’t mind the crazy folks if they aren’t fighting, drunk or both. I’ve learned to be a little cautious, though. I don’t know what to do about them. I haven’t joined the church group that comes to feed them on Thursday nights. They feed them burgers and hotdogs and occasionally get them singing a little. I applaud their efforts, but the crazy folks are still left on the streets at night and I don’t think that the gospel message really sticks with most of them.

According to my Dad, the homeless folks have been there a long time. He speaks to them, but doesn’t really worry about them. I have to worry a little. The crazy folks certainly aren’t helping the effort to revitalize downtown and I can’t see that there’s much there to help them either. It’s obvious that most of them are not capable of or willing to help themselves. The police consider them a minor nuisance – they can’t afford to arrest them and couldn’t keep them if they did. The shelters offer a place to sleep in the cold or a meal, but little else.

I’m a little embarrassed at the call to 911. It’s difficult to look across the street without the thought that , “there but by the grace of God go I.” The strength of our republic has been the opportunity America has afforded for success along with the willingness of our people to care for those in need. Living in America has not been a zero sum game. Joe has not become wealthy or successful at John’s expense. We’ve succeeded or failed based upon our individual efforts and our efforts and intentions, for the most part, have been good. I hope that this isn’t changing, but I sense that it is.

We’re not doing so well right now. I mistrust our universal willingness to rely on government for solutions. I’m also embarrassed at my own ambivalence, but I’m not willing to adopt a crazy person either.

God is still in control. Here’s to better days . . .

Thoughts on Greatness

January 19, 2007

What makes a great man? Is it fame, wealth, fortune? Is it the things that are supposed to impress or the things we never hear about? Is it appearance or reputation? Is it the desire for respect or a quiet strength?

Our shopping center is for sale. Actually, it’s not our shopping center. AlphaGraphics just happens to be located there. Anyway, it’s up for auction on February 7. It doesn’t really matter to us. We’re moving. But, the upcoming auction has produced an interesting cast of would be investors who all want to know the story behind our empty center.

His name isn’t Mark, but that’s what we’ll call him. He could have just walked in the shop and asked about the center like the rest of the bidders. But he had to make a show of it. Since he found himself in a printshop, he had to concoct a project he wanted. Ostensibly, he wanted some sales collateral for a development he is undertaking in Florida. He wanted ideas, but never stopped his monologue long enough to accept any. Rather he talked at length about all of the properties he owned, the wealth he had amassed, the important position he’d held at a large corporation. All of it was calculated to impress.

Miscalculation. Sorry.

Today, beautiful wife and I attended the funeral of a friend. His name was Derryl. The service was beautiful, a rare commemoration of a life well lived; a life of faith, a life of joy, a life given for others. I first got to know him through Walk to Emmaus, a Christian organization in which we both participated. Shortly after I became involved with this group, I met Derryl. I remember his excitement about working a weekend program. He was going to be on the cleanup crew, mopping floors and scrubbing bathrooms.

Beautiful wife got to know Derryl and his wife Jane before I met them. They invited our kids to their farm to pick vegetables. Fresh corn in paper bags would appear as if by magic on our doorstep and on the back porches of many other houses in Perry. We’d know that Derryl and Jane had been by. When we moved into our current house, he came over on a Saturday morning to help me figure out what to do with a grape arbor in the backyard.

He was retired. I knew that he had been a doctor. I didn’t know that he had graduated from the Citadel, then West Point. I didn’t know that he had practiced as a pediatrician around Philadelphia for 30 years. I knew him as a warm smile, a laugh, a pat on the back.

It was two weeks ago that I last saw him. I knew something was wrong because it took him a split second to remember my name. He had been sick for over a year, but he was in pain that day. Yet he called just a couple of days later to congratulate our daughter who had been awarded a scholarship. Always thoughtful. Always happy to encourage.

I doubt I’ll ever see Mark again. I won’t see Derryl again on this earth. I know I’ll miss him. He was a great man.

Just How Much Is Too Much?

November 7, 2006

perfumes.jpgSubtitle: The fragrance of death

The printshop was in Brian’s capable hands on Friday when the moon was full. It was November 3, but she hadn’t changed her Halloween clothes. The eyes were real, as I understand it. They just looked as if they came from a mask. And the smell was potent; potentially an amalgam of every perfume at the cosmetics counter in Parisians at the mall across the street.

She needed flyers. A local sign shop had done the art and she’d make sure that they’d send it to us by email. Could we do it?

I’m sure that Brian responded politely. There are some jobs that are better for other printers and this was surely one of them. The customer was insistent. Wisely, Brian asked for a deposit. That was apparently difficult, because he had to test four credit cards before one would work and still had to get a little cash for the deposit needed over the limit of the card. The order was placed and the customer would make sure that the art was sent . . . that is, if she could remember where she was when she walked out the front door.

My beautiful wife didn’t like her perfume. She walked in a half hour later and detected the aroma still lingering over the smell of printing solvents. When I got back from my weekend trip, I heard all about the first part of the story.

There was no residual odor when I arrived this morning. We discussed the potential of the job at the morning meeting. No art had arrived from the sign shop and Brian was skeptical that any would materialize. I didn’t detect the smell when the phone rang shortly after lunch.

“Are my flyers ready?” asked a somewhat vague voice at the other end.

“I don’t know, but I’ll check. Could you tell me who you are, please?”

“Oh,” was the reply, followed by several seconds of silence. “Are you there?”

“I know where I am, but she doesn’t know who she is,” I’m thinking, when it finally dawns on her that she hasn’t told me her name. I check on the job and find out that the art still hasn’t arrived. I suggest that she check again with the sign shop.

Two hours later, I smelled it. The overpowering aroma of the Parisian’s cosmetics counter. I considered sneaking out the back door. It was inevitable. Brian walked into my office.

“She’s here,” he said. “She can’t wait any longer for her flyers and we still don’t have the art.”

I noticed a furtive movement in his eyes. He was edging toward the back door. I took a deep breath, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be able to hold it for long.

I smiled as I saw her. She was there with a friend, a rather fierce looking young woman, and her eyes really weren’t too far out of focus. Maybe this would be ok. I explained to her that we really couldn’t do anything until the files were sent to us.

“But I left a copy,” she slurred. “Can’t you do anything with it?”

Brian, who had regained his fortitude, produced the wrinkled paper from the job jacket.

“No,” we both replied.

“But I put it together on my computer!” she replied, a little more assertive now.

“Can you send it to us?” I asked.

“No, it’s on my computer,” was the answer.

My eyes had begun to water and I could feel a big sneeze coming on. “You see, we would need it on our computer,” I told her.

“Oh,” followed by the same silence I had experienced earlier on the phone. “I don’t understand.”

The fog had begun to thicken. She lost focus altogether as I refunded her deposits, both the credit card and the cash. She came to only briefly to ask how long it would take before the money was back into her card.

“I have a lot of these,” she murmured as she put the plastic back into her pocketbook, “but I need some more.”

It had really quit being funny towards the end of the conversation, but her last statement made it really sad. It wasn’t just the perfume she was drowning in. I almost opened my mouth, but I think her friend was reading my mind. The fierce friend gave me a fierce look and took her arm.

“Sorry I couldn’t help you,” I muttered as they walked out the door. I was (and am) feeling guilty.
The smell lingered on a while, like dying flowers.