No, print is not dead, nor will it ever entirely die. However, our businesses certainly will if we do not deal with the new realities of “print without printing.” In this series, I will first deal with how industries evolve and the strategy we need to employ to get from here to there and live to tell about it. In the second article, I will focus on what our new market realities are. In the third, I will give you my vision of printing’s potential “killer app,” or the thing that would be most disruptive to us. In the fourth, I will give you my view of today’s print shop tomorrow—a guess, if you will, about what we will be doing to make a living in the future. Now, I don’t know if I’ll be right, but it’s my vision, nonetheless. So welcome to my world, and let us begin at the beginning.
Since Gutenberg, our business model has been built on delivering duplicates. Call them what you wish: copies, prints, forms, signatures, images, or duplicates. Produce them on whatever you wish: letterpress, offset, or digital doodad. The fact remains that our pricing and gross sales have been built on how many duplicates we delivered, and that model is in severe trouble. The new reality is we don’t need duplicates when electronic originals are better, cheaper, and easier to provide.
Once we understand and accept that fact, then we need to determine how we will transform our business, learn new skills, figure out how to price all over again, and do it while we make money so we actually survive the transformation.
THEORY OF EVOLUTION
I relate business transformation to evolution of the species. Species evolve, but animals don’t. Industries transform, but the vast majority of businesses within those industries don’t. Like animals evolving, in an industry old businesses die and new ones are born. And those born are more adaptable to their surroundings or use newer technology than the ones that just died, which is the essence of how species and industries evolve.
That gives rise to the conventional wisdom that older businesses die because owners don’t adopt newer technology. I agree. But less obvious is that most owners know this and let it happen anyway.
Why? One group of companies always will be more technologically advanced the day they open than at any other time. That’s due to one of two reasons. Either they don’t generate enough positive cash to afford new technology as they age and/or it has to do with an owner’s age. Start a new business when you are 55 and you are likely to try to ride out your equipment investment instead of buying new stuff.
Another batch is people who actively resist change in everything they do. The printer I talked to the other day who refused to use email because it was ruining the industry, and who doesn’t have a website, is an example. These are the guys most people think about when they describe technologically deficient owners, but I think these are in the minority.
The biggest batch of unchanging owners is the “Geritol crowd,” or owners needing assistance for “iron-poor, tired blood.” Meet one technological challenge after another through the purchase of equipment (iron) for enough years and, at some point, one just doesn’t want to do it anymore. We don’t want to learn new stuff. We’d rather just close up and go home. This is especially true if the owner has been financially successful for they don’t have to do it anymore; they have print or play options.
What about selling the business? Yes, it’s done more today than it was 40-50 years ago, but still the number of businesses sold versus the number available to sell is around 35%, I’m told. And the numbers that transition to the next generation are even slimmer at about 5% or so.
So, older businesses close or sell for a variety of reasons, not just because new technology surfaces. Then new ones open. The ones opening buy the latest equipment and thus, company by company, our industries evolve.