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.

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Inspired . . . Really!

March 8, 2011

This one was published in the venerable Macon Telegraph, so it really has to be true. (For real, see the article).  It seems that the Pork Board, ummh make that the National Pork Board, has decided that it’s time to change their careworn slogan of 25 years.  You’ve heard the old tagline, even if you don’t remember it:  “Pork:  the other white meat.” That one never really played well down here. The first white meat is naturally chicken.  In Middle Georgia, we always figured the other white meat was catfish.

So, anyway, with pork consumption totaling 50 pounds per capita in the U.S.; the National Pork Board wants to increase consumption by 10% by 2014.  And they’re going to do it with “a stronger connection, a more emotional connection to our product,” This according to Ceci Snyder, the board’s VP of Marketing.  Tying all of this together is a new and powerful new slogan.  Are you ready for this?

Pork: 

Be Inspired

 

Pig in a tutu

The pig in a tutu doesn’t come with the new catchphrase . . . it’s Poor Richard’s contribution, just for effect.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but this one really gets my adrenaline pumping.  I’m picturing a big budget, highly paid advertising executives, focus groups, quantitative analysis, A-level meetings with upper management, large expenditures, lots of money . . . all surrounding the impressive new phrase: Be inspired. Oh, and did I mention lots of money?

Poor Richard used to travel through southern Indiana, where they talk about hogs and actually raise them.  I expect that a small agency in Vincennes or Seymour could have done the same work for $500.  Nonetheless, I am impressed (and inspired). In fact, I’m so inspired that I’m going to start on this year’s 55 pounds of pork tomorrow.  Barbecue for lunch at Gralpharaphics!

Dirty Pig Face


All dressed up with no place to go?

January 10, 2011

It’s been a rare, snowy day here in Middle Georgia.  To be more precise, it’s been a rare, icy, slippery day here in Middle GA. Couldn’t get to the printshop this morning and received no disappointment whatsoever when I contacted the team and asked if they thought we should call off work for today.

“There’s a half inch sheet of ice out my front door.” reported designer Todd.

“I’m at my girlfriend’s house and we’ve already built a fire.” from RH man Brian.

“I was all dressed and ready to go at 6:00 am when you texted that you weren’t coming.” from the first lady of sales, Sharon.

That one held me up. It brought to mind the lyrics of one of my favorite British Invasion songs, “I ain’t got you:”

I got a Maserati G.T.
With snakeskin upholstery.
I got a charge account at Goldblatt’s,
But I ain’t got you.

I got a closet full of clothes,
But no matter where it goes,
It keeps a ring in the nose,
But I ain’t got you.

I got a tavern and a liquor store.
I play the numbers, yeah, four forty-four.
I got a mojo, yeah, don’t you know,
I’m all dressed up with no place to go.

I got women to the right of me.
I got women to the left of me.
I got women all around me,
But I ain’t got you.
No, I ain’t got you.

For those of you who might be somewhat beyond the age where familiarity with the British Invasion is a given, the Yardbirds were the Rolling Stones that didn’t stay around.  They had three great guitarists.  Jimmy Page went on to lead Led Zeppelin. Jeff Beck produced one of the most amazing jazz fusion guitar albums of the 1970s (Wired). And then there was Clapton, the guitarist of the aforementioned number. Poor Richard doesn’t ascribe to the 1960’s graffiti asserting that “Clapton is God,” but it’s fair to assume that you have heard of him.

Ain’t got you . . .  sounds really familiar. The printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar (name carefully concealed to protect the sensitive interests of the franchise) has spent a great deal of time and energy over the past couple of years adding the latest whizbang capabilities. We can help customers with email communications.  We can send postcards with PURLS. We can help with social networking and Google Adwords. We can even develop simple CMS sites for small businesses.  All of that along with wonderful capabilities in digital and conventional print and you’d think that we’d find an interested customer or two. But in reality, we’re kind of stuck . . . all dressed up with no place to go.

Poor Richard has batted about the “marketing services provider” concept for a couple of years. This theory maintains that in order to survive, printing companies must diversify into other realms of communication and become marketing consultants to their customers.  I’m all for the first part of the assertion.  Conventional print is certainly waning at the moment and merging conventional print capabilities with the low cost potential of the internet only makes sense.   Marketing strategy is something completely different, though, especially in the altered reality of the Great Decession.

If you had asked me just a couple of years ago, I would have said that marketing strategy was the exclusive purview of the experts.  In those days, marketing was at least partially predictable . . . traditional efforts (advertising, PR, etc.)would yield predictable results. Now I’d say it’s anyone’s guess. Proven tactics may fail totally and a low cost video on YouTube can go viral. It’s unpredictable, but there’s plenty of stuff to try.

Our Gralpharaphics shop has experienced good business relationships with a couple of excellent agencies, and in balance, these folks have done a very good job for their customers.  One of our key agency accounts closed last year after trying very hard to bring their customers in line with the new realities of marketing.  They experienced difficulties because the new realities are damnably hard to define and their customers still expected the predictability of the old paradigm.

So where does that leave us? We can implement some pretty cool stuff, if we can find the customers willing to take the risk.  These folks are pretty hard to find in icebound Middle Georgia, though, so Poor Richard is humming the old British Invasion song

Couldn’t find a good Yardbirds video, but the audio tells the story  . . .

Got to end on an optimistic note, though. Here’s Janis . . .


Counterintuitive

December 12, 2010

Always have liked that word.  Something that is counterintuitive is unexpected, surprising. Counterintuitive results may even seem illogical at first.  A counterintuitive conclusion calls out for examination.

Where exactly is this leading? To something relevant, of course. International Paper Company has sponsored a new website based upon a seemingly counterintuitive argument.  The website is GoPaperGrowTrees.com and the argument goes something like this: choosing and using paper actually benefits forests and the environment.

Poor Richard can hear what may of you are thinking . . . “sheer propaganda from wealthy timber barons bent on despoiling America’s valuable natural resources.”

Admittedly, the source of the argument lends a certain tinge to it’s credibility. Poor Richard, having earned his livelihood (for better and lately for worse) in and around the timber and paper industry, may also be considered a suspicious source.  Yet the argument stands on its own, despite the advocates involved.  It’s born of simple economics and goes something like this:

  1. Forestry is an agricultural business.  This is certainly true in the US and the website supplies the data to prove it.
  2. The amount of a product supplied is directly related to the demand for that product. This is basic economics. Remember the S&D graph in Econ 101?  The price of the product is determined by the intersection of the supply and demand curves.
  3. There is competition for the resources needed for production.  In this case, the competing interest is development.  Most of the timberland lost in the US during the last 20 years was forestland that was eliminated for development. The value of the land resource was greater when developed for commercial or residential use than when employed in agricultural production of timber.
  4. If the demand for forest related products (specifically paper) remains low, prices will not provide an incentive for continued forest management, additional forest lands will be lost, and fewer remaining forests will be managed either for environmental or agricultural benefit.
  5. Finally (and conversely), an increase in the demand for (and price of) print and paper will preserve forest lands and help to insure the best economic and environmental outcomes.

Multiple factors have driven the decrease in the demand for paper and print during the last 3 years.  Foremost among these are the availability of competing technologies (like blogs on the internet), the perception that the cost of print outweighs any benefit it has over competing forms of communication, and the propensity to simply cut the larger identifiable costs when under economic stress.

It would be interesting to be able to measure the actual effect that environmental objections have had on demand.  While Poor Richard suspects that this would be difficult to quantify, there is no doubt that the green objection has made a great excuse for the denigration of print and the diminution of demand for print on paper.  (I still don’t believe that people are really freaking out about printing their emails).

Go Paper Grow Trees LogoWill this signal a return to the good old days of print on paper? Probably not, but it’s still a very effective (if counterintuitive) argument for valuable products that really shouldn’t be as outmoded as popular environmental mantras would make them.   Click on the logo, visit the site, watch the video and let me know what you think. Or better yet, order something printed on paper from the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street.


Half a bob off plumb

August 19, 2010

It’s been one of those weird weeks when the moon should have been full. But it wasn’t. Perhaps the 100 plus degree heat an 99.999997% humidity have steamed the brains of Middle Georgians.  Poor Richard doesn’t know exactly what it is, but things are slightly askew here . . . to paraphrase my buddy Bob Galloway, the curmudgeon, the entire town is about “half a bob off plumb.”


Item One

I didn’t get to meet her, but right hand man Brian said that she looked relatively normal when she walked through the doors of the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar (name carefully concealed to avoid disrupting the peaceful sleep of the powers that be at the franchise . . . hint, sounds like Gralpharaphics).  She explained to Brian that she was opening a new business and needed letterhead, envelopes, business card, etc. This used to be a fairly common occurrence at printing companies, and Brian looked forward to serving a new customer.

It’s not uncommon that a new customer will ask the price of a product before they provide a description of it.  While it is possible to quote a price that will cover most contingencies, I’ve yet to find a customer who will accept an estimate of “probably somewhat less than $10,000,” without question.  Standard operating procedure is to try to narrow the description a bit and find a solution that is reasonably in line with the customer’s expectations and budget.

Brian attempted and ascertained that the customer would like to use paper for her letterhead and envelopes and would also like her symbol on it.  She specifically said “symbol,” not logo or wordmark or even image. She wanted her symbol on the letterhead . . . in color . . . and (as she glanced and pointed at a presentation folder on our display rack) “smashed into the paper like that.”

Skeptical that the cost of embossing a process color logo on a short run of letterhead would be practical for a new business, Brian started to suggest alternatives. The customer was adamant. What she wanted was her symbol smashed into the letterhead, business cards and envelopes. Ever helpful, Brian offered to run down prices and asked if the customer had her logo as a digital file that we could use . . . or at least something that we could look at to help us prepare the estimate.  The customer fumbled a bit, then reached in her purse, removed her billfold and then her drivers license.

“That’s it,” she exclaimed, pointing at the photo on the license. “That’s my symbol. That’s what I want!”

Brian, ever mindful of the endless time and patience available to the printshop owner, deferred to Poor Richard and told the customer that I would follow up with her.  I haven’t contacted her yet, but I do have an idea. Perhaps something like this might work?


Item Two

Three paragraphs, bullet points, and numbers. Poor Richard is probably going to get in big trouble with this one, because the customer is going to read this blog, identify himself, and get supremely ticked off!

Here’s the text of the email we received:

Whereas, from time to time revisions are made to documents created for Amalgamated Peanut Butter and Jelly Roll Company (APB&J Rollco), and said documents are printed and archived by Gralpharaphics of Macon, the aforesaid company (APB&J Rollco) wishes to indicate the occurrence of revisions to each document produced and to verify the currency of each revision prior to production of duplications, reprints, or new and unique iterations of each printed version or versions.

Because the temporality of the aforementioned documents is currently not indicated, this may currently counterindicate the currency of our current versions. In fact, our customers have occasionally called the currency of our current versions into question due to the lack of an evidential indicant that the version they received was indeed correct and produced contemporaneously with the latest APB&J Rollco product described within.

Our goals are thus:

  • to accurately indicate the current version
  • to convey this clearly to our customers
  • to assure that the latest iteration of each document is indeed the current version
  • (to confuse the pants off of the folks at Gralpharaphics)

To that end we require that your company immediately implement the following changes as pertain to the documents and versions of documents you currently produce, have produced in the past, or might conceivably produce in the future for APB&J Rollco:

  1. Indicate the current version on the document
  2. Do this in such a way that the temporality of the version is conveyed to each customer
  3. Destroy, delete, or otherwise dispense with document versions that are untemporal or not current

Many thanks for the services you render for APB&J Rollco and for your prompt attention to this matter.

–Name withheld in the vain hope that Poor Richard will go undiscovered.

Admittedly, Poor Richard has elaborated a bit . . . but not a lot.  The actual email we received from our good, but very precise, customer was almost as complicated as the gobbledygook inserted above and did require a phone call to ascertain exactly what the customer wanted . . . a date entry at the bottom of each form we produce to indicate the latest revision.


Item Three

The customer was absolutely serious. So serious in fact that he noted a specific instruction on the proof copy that he faxed back to us and on his email approval of the final proof.  We’ve produced shells similar to the one the customer wanted many times. A shell is  boilerplate language (and sometimes a form image) that can be fed through a laser printer to overprint the specifics of a contract, invoice, etc.

In this case, we were asked to print 5000 copies on one side. Presumably the specifics would be printed on the other. There was no specific paper requirement . . . we printed on 60# offset text (no watermarks).

The instruction:  Please make sure that this information is printed on the back of the paper.

I think we did OK. We stacked all 5000 copies printed side down in the boxes and delivered them to the customer.  He thought we were wonderful!

Times are still rough in the printing business, but it laughter is a great diversion. Isn’t life grand?


The Capital Trap

July 25, 2010

(or why my printshop isn’t like a transformer)

It’s been a while, gentle readers, and I’m sure that many of you have given me up for dead. Well, to paraphrase Monty Python, we’re not quite dead yet. Nonetheless, the images of loading bodies onto the two-wheeled cart are ummmh . . . ominously relevant.

It’s been a very rough two years, and I’m still looking for the corner to turn.  This may be a recession in the rest of the U.S., but in our small market, it feels a lot like a depression. We are struggling with a bad combination of circumstances. We have fewer customers with less money and greater reluctance to spend it. This is coupled with a sea change in the way we communicate that has not at all favored our core business: print. And to state that our resources are limited would be a wild exaggeration. They are simply nonexistent.

I’ve read about the capital trap. Usually it refers to banks and the total contradiction of government demands to both lend more and raise capital reserves. This is prima facie lunacy. How can you do both? Like most small businesses, the printshop behind the red awnings has been slighted when it comes to government largesse; and the banks quit lending to us before the balance sheet deteriorated to the point that Poor Richard could actually understand the bankers’ reluctance.

Poor Richard would like his business to become a Transformer. I’ve always been a little intrigued by these gadgets. The Transformers came along in my college days . . . I remember a slightly older friend’s 5 year old showing me the first one. “Now it’s a car, now it’s a monster machine!” he said as he pressed the button that released the monster.

“Now it’s a printshop, now it’s a monster communications machine!” Alas, were it only so.

The new “marketing services” that we’re all supposed to be so excited about providing did not gain traction in our little town. We’ve done a little, but the time requirements have been high and the return low. There are some product opportunities, but at this point we lack the capital resources to pursue them.

Our little shop is caught in it’s own version of a “capital trap.” When things were good, we invested in what we thought would be the capital equipment that would keep us growing in years to come.  Justification of the equipment was based on the ill-conceived (in hindsight)  notion that business would grow a little, or at least remain stable at mid-2000s levels. In our case, we still have the equipment, but the demand for the production has faded. We’re paying for the equipment, but it isn’t paying for itself.

In a different time, we would just sell the machinery, stomach a little loss and move on. Now, the only market for the machines we have purchased is overseas and the selling prices really don’t even justify the trouble required to move the equipment.  Unfortunately,  the notes on the machinery are not based upon present valuations, but upon the value of the machines before we warped into a parallel universe where printing equipment is worth little more than scrap metal. Naturally, the banks and leasing companies are reluctant to simply concede the devaluation of the machinery or the obligation. It’s kindof like real estate . . .

There is very little solace in the knowledge that we’re not alone in this predicament. Poor Richard has a friend, customer, and fellow small business owner in a completely different line of work that can describe the same scenario; and I suspect that every small business owner can tell some version of this or a similar tale.  Here’s the point:  we won’t be able to grow ourselves out of this depression until we can pay off some of the debt burden that we’re saddled with.

Somehow, the politicians (and the media) have the strange idea that small businesses are “reluctant” to invest and to hire new people. They think that all we need is the right “stimulus.” The latest platitudes and lip service from the pandering politicians of the Potomac comes in the form of a $30 billion fund to encourage regional banks to lend to creditworthy small businesses (see the Business Week article). Poor Richard wonders just who that would be. Wake up! It’s not reluctance that is the problem, it’s resources. I am very skeptical that the small business economy can be “transformed” by simply flipping a magical economic switch and not the least bit convinced that there is yet any understanding of the importance of the small business segment of the economy among those who ostensibly govern our nation.

Reluctance does come into play when it comes to taking on more debt, though. Most of us will never be as comfortable with debt as we may have been before the economic debacle. The good news is that the debt we currently have will one day be retired. The payments do eventually come to an end.  Somehow, some of us will manage to work ourselves out of this predicament; probably despite the feeble efforts of the politicians.  We’ll hold on  until we can find a little money to try the next best thing. And maybe that next best thing will work and we can make some money and then invest in new equipment and hire new employees.

Maybe we’ll even invest in new businesses . . . wonder how medical marijuana would grow in the basement of the old building on Poplar Street?

Life is still grand!


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.