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.

Advertisements

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.


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.


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