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Commentary & Analysis

What's Your Core Business? Pick One

By Michael Josefowicz October 21,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: November 21, 2006

By Michael Josefowicz October 21, 2006 "What business are you in?" It seems so common sense. But if the answer doesn't help you make better decisions , who can spare the time to figure it out? Instead of an "essay question", or a "fill in the blank" question, try thinking of it as a multiple choice. Here are your choices: My core business is: A. Infrastructure B. Personal service C. Creative The infrastructure business includes General Electric, Microsoft, Starbucks, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Google, the deli on the corner in my neighborhood (open 24 hours),and Astoria Graphics in NY, whose head of production answers email within 15 minutes, 18/6 almost 365. Personal service business includes hairdressers, psychologists, physical therapists, nurses, yoga teachers, teachers in the classroom and some lawyers. Creatives live and produce in a world very different from the others. Sometimes the same individual does both. Creatives can be found everywhere, both within and outside of formal organizations. The job of a creative is to produce better new ideas. The industry usually says "creatives" when what they really mean are document creators. Document creators are actually in the infrastructure business. Creatives live and produce in a world very different from the others. Sometimes the same individual does both. New ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere. But they are usually the product of one, two or three people. It's just the way the creative business works. You have to pick one "Service provider" or "one-stop shopping source," for example, are not core businesses. They are ways to run a business. They don't create value, they monetize it. So if you can't pick one, try again. The problem with "we do all three," is that it's nice to say, but in the real world, it's almost impossible to do. The most reliable way to succeed is to be great at something. Being great at one thing is plenty hard enough. Being great at three things is pretty much impossible. The most reliable way to succeed is to be great at something. Being great at one thing is plenty hard enough. Being great at three things is pretty much impossible. Of course, every business has elements of all three. But without a clear picture of your core business, you won't make intelligent decisions about resource allocation. If you can't quickly decide where to put limited time and money, you'll miss opportunities or respond too slowly to threats. To make it even more difficult, the infrastructure, personal service and creative businesses thrive in very different cultures. And the word "cultures" is not an abstract concept. It's just shorthand way of defining the underlying rules, customs and incentives that govern the activities of the folks in your group. Or, for that matter, in your target audiences. A culture is not based on what people say or a mission statement. It's based on what people do every day. It's reflected in how you spend your money and, even more important, how you spend your time. Culture can take a long time to grow, and an even longer time to change. It is the true defensible competitive advantage. Culture will always trump technology, mission statements, and marketing campaigns. And, when you think about it., It might be why common sense printers have historically resisted the idea of marketing. A) Infrastructure -- is the right answer for printers If you chose A I think you are playing to the printing industry's sweet spot. There's been lots of talk recently about how we are in the service business. While that seems to make sense, for printers, "service" has always, and will always, mean making it easier to buy the product. That's infrastructure. A culture is not based on what people say or a mission statement. It's based on what people do every day. The really good news about the infrastructure business is that it's a very good way to make lots of money, relatively predictably. Sometimes, if you are smart , focused and lucky enough, infrastructure businesses can scale into big businesses relatively quickly. In an information-rich society, delivery systems for communication are moving quickly from personal service to infrastructure. The ecology of the content delivery business is getting richer and more vibrant every minute. If you can find and act to take advantage of opportunities, there's no better time to be in the game. Fore example, some of the players in the print delivery infrastructure business include Staples, VistaPrint, FedEx Kinko's, Lulu.com and their print suppliers, along with vendors like Canon, Epson, HP, Heidelberg MAN, Océ, Xerox, and the other heavy metal manufacturers. Then there's all the software companies that develop the tools that enable the printing that takes place on the big machines. And the finishing, binding and mailing equipment. Most important, are the thousands of "small" printers that routinely deliver the right product, at the right price at the right time to the right people with a minimum of hassle for themselves or their customers. What makes an infrastructure company successful? On the most basic level, a great infrastructure company gives people easy access to stuff that people want. The hard part is that they have to keep inventing ways to do this more efficiently and more in tune with sustainable practices. The heart of an infrastructure company is lowering the cost of acceptable delivery. The secret sauce is making sure it keeps getting easier and more pleasurable for the customer to buy the product. The hard part is that infrastructure needs to keep changing if it is to remain efficient and in tune with sustainable practices. So what does this mean for you? The bad news is there is no one-size-fits-all magic bullet. The good news is that you already have all the information you need. You just have to spend some thinking time, to get it all straight. I don't have that much intelligence to add to lowering the cost of timely delivery. That's more for the experts in operations, machinery, technology, and standards-based production. But if you listen to the people in your organization, they probably have hundreds of great, practical ideas to do just that. But I've been a printing customer for over 35 years, so I feel okay about talking about the customer experience. The two questions to focus on, first 1. How many emails or phone calls does it take to complete a customer inquiry? Anything more than one is too much. 2. How much time is spent setting up and attending meetings? Usually anything more than 2-3 hours a week, is too much. What's the quickest, easiest way you can start to fix that? That's up to you. But in my opinion, it's the first thing to do. Without fixing the customer-facing communication system first, and making it easy and even fun to deal with your company, you will probably be wasting lots of time and money. So start with communications. Talk with your customers, find out what is and is not working, what they like and don't like, and even if they have suggestions for how you could improve. Then figure out how to address the issues they point out. Then move on to finding other ways to improve the customer experience and keeping them as satisfied customers. It's just the way the infrastructure business works.



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