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.

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Obsolete?

December 20, 2008

Lately, I’ve been feeling a little like the buggy manufacturer, who, annoyed at the loud and noxious belches of the new automobiles in the street, comments, “Those things’ll never make it . . . they scare the horses!”

The folks at the Alphagraphics franchise are going to be upset, but I’m going to say it anyway, “Printing on paper is  becoming obsolete.” Two items I encountered last week have led me to this conclusion:

First, I heard an article on NPR about the Detroit Free Press (Detroit Newspapers Cut Back Home Delivery). Citing cost and profit pressures, they’re phasing out print to and going to 3 days a week for their print publication. Their emphasis will be placed on their web presence.

Then, bumbling around online, I came upon the proceedings of an event called The Inbound Marketing Summit. This event was held in September in Cambridge, MA and was all about new marketing techniques — internet, social networking, and how businesses (even small businesses) can grow by attracting people who are interested in their products to their websites.  This, I guess, is opposed to old marketing that targets just about everyone and tries to drive them all into a place of business, even when they don’t want to go there (like Poor Richard at the mall at Christmastime).

I haven’t finished going through the site, yet, but videos of all of the breakout sessions are available.  The first video I watched was both exciting and frightening.   The title of the session was “R U Ready? Leveraging New Technologies to Propel Your Business,” presented by a gentleman named Greg Verdino.  I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of this post if you’d like to watch it.

With college aged kids, the fact that I’m no longer in the mainstream is brought home to me regularly. I just didn’t really understand how far out of the channel I really am.  At one point during the presentation, Verdino identifies the audience by their generation names. “I’m an ‘Xer’,” he states, “how many GenY’s are out there? Millennials?” He didn’t ask about my generation. I’m a Baby Boomer . . . ergo out of touch.

Sure, I’ve been blogging for a while. I’ve got a Facebook site and I’m playing with LinkedIn.  I’ve even tried advertising with AdWords . . . didn’t get very far. I’m really not even scratching the surface. But, until now,  it had simply never occurred to me that these forms of communication were really going to take the place of print on paper.

For my generation, it’s still natural to pick up a book or a magazine or a newspaper. I do like to look at the mail. As a printer, I enjoy the feel of paper. I feel more comfortable reading print on paper.  While my children read books, their information comes from the Internet.  Email was a major innovation for my generation. Verdino comments that email is not considered reliable by the new generation entering the workplace. They prefer to communicate through their personal network. And printers wonder why we’re not printing letterhead and envelopes any more!

Am I worried? You betcha.  It’s difficult to reinvent a small business whose livelihood is dependent upon a pretty significant capital investment in machines that print on paper;  especially in a recession that has reduced the volume of business (and consequently human and monetary resources) dramatically. Is print dead? Not yet, but it really is changing a lot.

I am certainly hopeful that there will be a place for the local printer . . . at least over the short to medium term. A lot of the commodity stuff has already been gobbled up by the online, gang run printers (See Poor Richard’s post Caveat Emptor!). Most good local print companies really enjoy working with our customers and much of our business comes from folks who either don’t have the time or the expertise to take their chances with the online print service providers. We have become, in essence, custom shops, specializing in projects that need to be handled correctly and quickly — projects that get lost in larger operations.

Many of us have expanded our range of services.  At our AlphaGraphics, we mail, we print signs, we put together packages and kits  and we fulfill orders for certain customers.  We also take on the occasional “crazy order.” That’s the one that we really don’t know how to do until we finish it, but figure that it’ll work out in the end.  These services are keeping us afloat, but we haven’t found the “next best thing” to replace print.

And yes, there will always be printing presses of some sort. We still use trains, too, but they aren’t the preponderant form of transportation that they were in the latter half of the 1800s. You can even find a horse and buggy for hire if you look around a bit.  What I really need to figure out is how to take this horse and buggy in a new and different direction without going broke in the process. Ideas anyone?

Here’s Greg Verdino’s Video:

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