Last week I attended a conference in Boston. The group gathered in Boston had one thing in common, they all utilized offshore development teams to build software. The group couldn’t have been more diverse; some folks were building software to automate car wash businesses, lots were dedicated to the health care industry, and a few of us were involved with some aspect of the print industry.
As I listened to the presentations and had valuable discussions with the participants, I realized one thing that cuts across every industry, every market, and all businesses – software is in fact “eating the world” as Marc Andreessen famously said. The group in Boston were all building software; some for large recognizable corporations, others were single person startups, and some were like me – software consultants who are paid to build solutions for their customers.
Software is the primary business tool of our times. Your business’ ability to effectively utilize software is a strong determinant of your success.
This is a big change for the print manufacturing market; for many years, the primary tool of print manufacturers was the printing press. Learning about new printing technology, investing in presses that could do more, faster, cheaper is what differentiated you in the marketplace. More and more software is the differentiating tool because it is what allows you to extend your value proposition beyond the printed page, automate your manufacturing process, and create an easy customer experience that creates loyalty and stickiness.
You generally do three things with software: buy, implement, and/or build. There are common mistakes in each of these areas that I hope all print businesses avoid moving forward.
When business leaders “shop” for software they want more than anything “pain relief” – they are feeling pain in their business either because they don’t have a software solution or the solution they have is not working for them anymore. When you’re in the “pain relief” state, you tend to want to believe everything you hear. This is a very dangerous state to be in when you’re talking to software sales people.
A pain state also often keeps you from seeing the big picture. The number one mistake I see when printers buy software is their lack of consideration in how it fits in with the rest of their business. Software decisions are interconnected. Every solution you buy should be eventually connected both up and down stream in your workflow. If you’re buying a web-to-print solution you should have the option to someday connect to your customer’s technology and for sure feed jobs into your Print MIS. If you’re buying a production management solution (Kodak’s Prinergy, Esko Automation Engine, Aleyant’s tFlow), you should be thinking how does that solution “talk” to my MIS system? Can files from my web-to-print drop right into my pre-press automation workflows?
Both printers and vendors pay too little attention to the “fit” component of software solutions. I’ve seen printers considering a solution that greatly overlaps in functionality with solutions they already own and/or will not ever be able to integrate into their existing workflows. You can’t afford isolated software; your integrated/automated competitor will crush you on turn time, price, and profitability using the same presses with better workflows.
I’ve written a lot about why implementing software has such a low success rate, not just in the print industry but throughout all industries. Buying software can be fun – it’s like when you’re first dating someone, you only show the best parts of yourselves. Implementation is when you start to realize what you really bought. The way that product looked in the demo – seemed to work brilliantly but that’s not how your business works. Now when you’re trying to make it work for your business there seems to be nothing but roadblocks.
The most common cause of failed implementations is mindset. Are you trying to force the software to work the way you work or are you willing to bend the way you work to use the software in the most effective manner? When you have the mindset of change to work with the software – implementations succeed. When you try to bend software – you fail.
I never recommend building software from scratch unless you’re inventing something totally new. You might have a new approach to this or that but your entire solution is more likely differentiated by a few features that are wrapped around workflows that are “expected functionality.” For years now I’ve been saying – we all need to be software puzzle builders. First and foremost be clear what problem you’re trying to solve; e.g. build a great user experience for ordering decals online. The differential might be the way you approach the design aspect of decals, because you’re the decal expert. There are a whole lot of other things you need to do that are expected (e.g. take credit cards, handle authentication, etc.). Building software is expensive so you only want to invest in things that make a difference – buy the expected functionality via a platform/framework/application, then build the special sauce on top. For the decal challenge; you might pull together an ecommerce solution, plus a composition engine/design in the browser solution to create a unique solution for decals.
I love the idea of headless platforms like EPiServer and OrderCloud.io (from Four51), because they allow you to buy into expected features and functionality yet 100% control the user experience. You must invest in the software development process with these frameworks but you are getting the expected functionality that just needs to be exposed in the user experience – exactly how your customers need it. When you buy a straight up ecommerce/web-to-print solution every customer problem you run into must get forced through an ecommerce cart workflow, not every problem requires a cart. If you need to build something special and those requests keep on coming – consider a framework/platform that puts you in control of the user experience.
Buy, implement, or build – software is not going away, you will be faced with software decisions more and more in the future. Embrace the new tool set, start looking at your technology stack with the same attention you look at your print capacity.