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!

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Death of the Salesman?

June 21, 2009

These days, Poor Richard is getting older faster. I was young until I was 40, zoomed through middle age in a short 10 years and will be 50 this year. It’s tempting to say that 50 sure seems old to my 30 year old mind, but I’m afraid that the brain is aging, too.  Fer’ instance, there was a time when I could keep up with everything going on in the digital world . . . the latest microprocessors, the emergence of the internet, graphic and web design software and tools and all of the cool “killer apps.” That’s all left me in the dust. (Now I have to call my friend Mark Strozier at  The Brainstorm Lab, who has given up sleeping, but still knows everything).

But that’s not what this post is all about. I’ve written before about the massive changes that this recession is producing in the printing industry (see Poor Richard’s post Obsolete). Budgetary pressures have accelerated the transition of the publication of content from paper to the internet, and the rapid change is difficult for printers to cope with. Yesterday, I came across a discussion on Linked In that presents another dimension both to the difficulties that printers are facing and to the age and perspective gap that is becoming increasingly obvious to Poor Richard.

The discussion was posted by Jim Gross, who is an Account Executive Consultant at Image Printing Solutions in LA.  I’ll quote the post verbatim, since I’m not sure that a link will work:

Death of the Salesman – The Internet versus the human element.

The play “Death of a Salesman” tells of the tragic downfall of Will Loman. Loman’s flaw comes down to a lack of self-knowledge and obsession of greatness without adapting to change.

Today, the salesman’s world is rapidly changing to internet services so your clients can search for best prices or gather information for purchasing decisions. One main reason is avoiding the interaction with the dreaded salesman. Are you and your industry next? When is the last time you used a travel agent?

It has become an acceptable practice to purchase vacations, computers, cars, clothing, insurance, mortgages and other services daily with our computers.

The printing world is continually moving toward this trend with end-users reaping the benefits of faster service and lower prices. Manufactures, distributors and brokers are fighting to keep business at a profitable margin. The internet is making our industry into a commodity and the expertise of the salesman has been reduced to, “what is your best price”.

23 years ago a sales trainer at Uarco named Larry Dilly said there are only 3 things you need to know about the printing industry, “BETTER, CHEAPER, FASTER”. These words hold true today.

What is next for the print salesman? Promoting clients to go to your website for pricing and uploading artwork? If yes, then you will be the next Willy Loman.

The salesman of the future must be able to sell programs to companies and be viewed as a consultant with value while embracing the better, cheaper, faster of internet capabilities.

We are in an industry where both right and left brains must function equally. For printing is where conceptual ideas are turned over to mechanical engineering that produce works of art.

Poor Richard finds Jim’s message disturbing, a little confusing, and definitely thought provoking. A few observations:

  • In a pure commodity market, “better, cheaper, faster” trumps everything else. My experience is that very few products are purely commodities, regardless of the desire of some of those who purchase to make them so. Even lumber, which is defined as a commodity, has product attributes that are deemed better or worse by the buyer and other transactional attributes (delivery, for instance) which vary seller by seller.  With printing, each product is different. And even if the process of producing a piece may be similar from one provider to the next, quality and service aspects may vary widely. The low cost producer may not be able to produce “better” or “faster.”
  • Selling printing, at least for small and medium printers, has always required a consultative approach. Even in the days when it was given that all companies used printing, buyers varied in their knowledge of and comfort with the process. Today, it is rare that we deal with a professional “print buyer.” Most of our customers have to deal with printing only once or twice a year. They need all kinds of help to get their projects done. This is an opportunity for a proactive and creative salesperson.
  • Poor Richard could maintain that printing was not conducive to sale from Internet providers and that the implied comparison of our industry with the travel industry  is invalid, but this would only be a denial of reality. Just as Orbitz and Travelocity have taken a large bite from the business once held by local travel agents, so the gang run printers and VistaPrints of the web have appropriated business that once was the domain of the local printer.  Just as travel agencies have specialized in services and capabilities that are not easily replicated by the internet travel sites, so must printers do the same.

Defining and explaining the value that his company provides is and always has been the mission of a good salesman. Nonetheless, the comparison to Willy Loman is troubling. Poor Richard has read and seen Arthur Miller’s drama. While Loman was essentially overcome by his own ego and delusions of grandeur, at the core he thought he was right. The inability to recognize reality was at the root of his problems. His refusal to act on the basis of reality ultimately did him in.

It’s scary to think about Willy Loman when you’re approaching 50, especially when the world is changing so rapidly. I am hanging on to the hope that there is value to the human element and to the aspects of my business which can’t be commoditized. At the same time, it is folly not to look for opportunities amidst the change; essentially new ways to provide products and service that will be assigned a value by our customers.

Willy Loman?  Naaah . . . Mark, can I borrow your energy pills?

salesman