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Commentary & Analysis

The Road Less Traveled


By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: March 28, 2007

--- Special Feature - Sitting In The Road Less Traveled by Brian Weiner March 28, 2007 -- Incredibly, this year my business partner and I are celebrating our 15th year together in the printing industry. What makes this milepost achievement especially interesting is not that my partner found a way to deal with my creative eccentricities for all these years, but rather that every single page that we have ever produced in all our years in business together, has been produced digitally. We learned that the profit would never for us be found in toner on paper. In fact, our business was born as a result of the Xerox DocuTech, which we viewed back in 1992 as a value-added opportunity to escape the nominal bottom-lines that forced most printers to compete on price. In these insanely alien systems, we saw the chance to no longer sell a black and white page based upon competitive pricing. With digital printing we could now convincingly argue that by giving a client whole books in the exact quantity that they wanted, when they wanted them, our work was worthy of a significant pricing premium. In the ensuing years, which were filled with equal doses of gleeful whimsy and obscene profitability, we learned that the profit would never for us be found in toner on paper. Rather, it would always be about the creativity that empowered us--and our clients through us--to avoid competing on price and selling on our intelligence --our real value-added benefit. But a funny thing happened on our way to the bank. Listening to Frank Late in 1999 my partner and I were invited to speak to a printing industry group as part of a panel with Frank Romano from the Rochester Institute of Technology about the rapidly evolving business of printing, especially print on demand. After the session, as we were "debriefing" with our hosts, Frank said two things to us that changed the course of our business lives: First, that at its essence, printing is truly all about creation and not duplication, and second, he said that research being done at RIT indicated projected a print growth rate of only about one percent through 2020. Those few words, and the realization that the product life cycle was beginning to catch up with us, prompted us to sell our company in May, 2000 at the peak of the dot-com boom, and walk away from the digital, demand-based printing business. Our company had never competed on price, and the prospect of a flat growth curve and an ever-growing pool of competitors was enough to encourage us to cash out at what was, with the benefit of hindsight, the halcyon moment for our company. A profitable printing business is one that is not about print but about intelligence. A couple years later, during a keynote address at the Print on Demand conference, Frank Romano would once again reshape our careers with his comments. During a joint presentation with Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox, he commented that in the future, a profitable printing business would be one that was not about print but about intelligence. By his estimates, the cost of the printed page could not be more than 20 percent of the total amount billed to the client if a printer were to have a chance at the kind of profits that they had historically experienced through traditional print services. Instead, the successful printer of the future would sell an intellectual product that was enabled through printing. Forgive me for taking the long road to a short story, but for my partner and me, the one truly painful reality was that no matter how creative our ideas, no matter how innovative the approach, our clients were only willing to pay for the cost of the "click-plus" when we priced projects. Had we tried to bill for our knowledge and experience, we would have gone out of business not long after we opened our doors. A New Road In creating an entirely new company in 2003, we were fixated on certain unflinching principals that were integrated into our business plan, and they were: * An absolute commitment that in all cases, before we produced anything for a client, we would be paid for the value of our intelligence and experience. Without that commitment, we would pass on any potential business; * From the day we opened our doors, we committed that we would not produce a single page of printing that did not contain variability; * As with our previous company, we would find the niche that worked best for our plan, in this case the non-profit industry, and not accept business that strayed far from this niche; * Once rooted in the niche, we would attempt to move quickly to stake out the "territory" as ours and to establish ourselves as respected specialists in that niche; * We were fixated on living at the "bleeding edge" of technology and obsessed with continuously innovating our product. With that commitment to successful innovation, we would be able to avoid the functional pitfalls of the product lifecycle and maintain the most robust margins possible for each page we produced; * We would never again be "printers" in the price-pejorative sense of the term. If you visit our web site (www.1to1gulfcoast.com) you will not see the term anywhere in our material; * And finally, we would never again sell a printed page. All our work would be priced collectively as a service and not individually as a commodity. One to One has successfully evolved, much as Frank Romano envisioned that we would need to, into a printing company of the future where the printed page is the least valuable product that we sell. In fact, in just six years we have gone from a company where all that we did, all that we sold, and every dollar we billed hinged, on fractions of a cent, to a company that is valued and respected for our intelligence and our creativity. I can't imagine our lives today had we not chosen the road less traveled in building our "printing" company of tomorrow.



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