Reinvention in Interesting Times

The ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” applies as well to our present day as to any time in the past. Some businesses are thriving, some are managing, while many businesses find the mainstream media’s occasional reference to economic recovery to be only a cruel joke.

If you fit into the latter group, it may very well be time for drastic action. Further, waiting for an upswing in the general economy to revive your business no longer qualifies as a strategy. Time is running out.


Turn It Upside Down

You could try to sell. You could simply close your doors. If you are up for a challenge, you could reinvent.

Reinventing is not the same as re-engineering, which is simply finding better, more efficient ways to do the same thing. Re-engineering works when the core business is basically sound.

Reinventing means that you have carefully examined your business, and concluded that doing the same old same old just won’t work anymore. Perhaps your product specialty, which was once such a lucrative niche market, has been permanently impacted by some new technology. A good example from the past would be business forms printing. Well run, efficient businesses found that they were suddenly faced with sharply declining sales insufficient to continue operations. Many were unwilling to face the reality of the situation, while others lacked the vision to radically depart from the type of business they had become so familiar with.


The Big Adventure

Those who survived dedicated themselves to reinventing their operations. Reinventing can mean many things, but it always means that the reinvented company bears almost no resemblance to its former self. The blathering of some lecture circuit MBA types to the contrary, reinventing your business is an extreme move that is fraught with pain. Reinventing an existing organization includes all the risks of forming a new start-up venture, plus the baggage of your old organization.

Why would anyone embark on such a perilous adventure? The answer is survival. What used to work no longer does. Something major must be done, and soon!

An interesting example of this technique is those form printers who became developers and resellers of forms software. Recognizing that personal computers and desktop laser printers were eliminating the need for multi-part snap-out forms, these companies actually embraced the very technology that was threatening to put them out of business. Some completely exited the printing portion of their business, while others maintained only enough manufacturing facilities to service the limited future needs of their software licensees.

When a consultant or equipment sales rep convinces you that your future lies in digitally imaged, variable one-to-one direct mail printing, but up until now your niche has been printing church bulletins, you are facing business re-engineering.

You won’t just be shelling out for that new digital press. You will also need the frontend software to merge the variable information. You will need different bindery equipment. You and your employees (including the sales force) must learn an entirely new skill set. You may also have to develop expertise in a non-print subject with which you currently have no familiarity, such as e-commerce, Web development, database management, and postal sorting and coding. Very few, if any, of your current customers will still be with you after the transition.


First, Take a Deep Breath

When the “digital solutions” vendor paints this glorious picture of obscene profits, remember the scenario above. What you are really considering is re-inventing your company. Before you make the leap, stop to carefully consider what will be different that will allow you to be so much more successful than you are right now. Remember, there are no free lunches.

Reinvention of a business is risky, but doing nothing is riskier still. Instead of looking at reinvention as a last gasp gamble, view it as an opportunity to refresh, reinvigorate, and rejuvenate both your business and yourself.

Remember the excitement of starting your business way back when, when every day was a new adventure? Welcome back to interesting times.


Steve Johnson is president of Copresco in Carol Stream, IL; a pioneer in digital printing technology and print on demand. Contact him at, or send direct feedback about this column via