Case Study: Print Without Printing, Part 1

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.

 

CARL THE FISH

But wait! What happens to those of us caught in the middle? Can we evolve our businesses as we operate them? The good news is that it can be done. The bad news is that most won’t do it. To illustrate, let me tell you about Carl.

Carl was a fish who lived some 350 million years ago. In those days, nothing lived on the land except bugs and plants. Carl noticed that marketing opportunity and decided to jump on the bank, grab a few bugs, and plop back into the water. It worked. Others began doing the same thing, and Carl’s offspring eventually invested in equipment to make their job easier (lungs, hands, and feet).

Note that Carl, himself, didn’t grow lungs, hands, and feet. What Carl did was improvise while he hunted for easy-market bugs (customers).

Now, Carl had his detractors. Many old school fish said it was too dangerous and wouldn’t work. In fact, they pointed to some fish, known as the Finnovators, who had tried it before and who now lay dead up on the bank. Of course, Finnovators will try anything, so they lay dead at the bottom of the ocean as well.

Carl was different, though. Carl took prudent risks. He didn’t go all in or all out of the water in this case. Carl used his spare time to experiment with going after bugs using his new flopping techniques. He avoided jumping too far up on the bank where he couldn’t get back.

In our world, Carl took some of his positive cash flow and time and “wasted” it on research and development while he continued to eat conventionally—if you call eating stuff underwater conventional. That means he maintained a good current ratio and days’ cash on hand, and he bought equipment that wouldn’t kill him if it didn’t result in increased business. He didn’t fish or cut bait, so to speak; meaning he didn’t abandon one market (stuff to eat in the water) for the promise of another (stuff to eat on land).

But he was adventurous as well. Carl wondered what it would be like on the land and spent time and resources to find out. He didn’t just stay in the ocean with his cousin Charley and gripe about how it was harder to find good stuff to eat underwater anymore.

Like Carl, we can survive in a new environment, but only if we understand our new reality and make a concerted effort to get it just right—not too much or too little. Our evolution won’t just happen. That is why this series is written especially for owners and dedicated to Carl’s memory.

Now, as the marketers say, next month we will take this discussion up to 50,000 feet and look at the big picture. For innovators and Web sophisticates, the technical aspects I report here will sound to you like yesterday’s news. Duh! However, for the majority of us underwater paper benders who still envision the duplication model of printing coming back after the recession is over, the view could be transformational.

 

Tom Crouser is principal of Crouser & Associates, Inc., 4710 Chimney Drive, Charleston, WV 25302, 304/965-7100. Contact him at tom@crouser.com. Tom is now tweeting, friending, and linking in. Friend him on Facebook, link to him on LinkedIn, and follow his tweets at www.twitter.com/tomcrouser. And check out the unique business opportunity for small press printers offered by CPrint International at www.cprint.org. This article is available as a podcast at www.quickprinting.com/podcast and from iTunes.

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