A business partnership could have many objectives, some obvious, some not so obvious. As our world continues to get more interconnected, there are more reasons to partner and less reasons to try and do everything on your own. The web 2.0 community created a term web 2.0 mashups to describe collections of technologies that are assembled easily using open APIs to create relevant and valuable workflows. The web is living up to its analogy – everything is connected to everything else, including the software solutions.
In this interconnected world, our technology has to function much like a middle puzzle piece – able to plug in to existing technologies in virtually all directions.
Plug in, widget, module, component, API, SDK, web services – all words and acronyms that describe ways in which our online world continues to push software towards greater and greater interoperability. The days of single monolithic software applications are over. Today's software solutions are loose assemblies of different components, combined to create value added workflows that are relevant (meaning they appear for the right person at the right time, in the right environment).
While I was writing this article I received an e-mail from 37Signals, the makers of the Basecamp project management software, the title of the e-mail "over 85 business tools work with Basecamp" a pretty impressive number of ways that the core application of Basecamp is extended with 3rd party solutions. The folks at 37Signals didn't set out to solve everything in their application, they set out to solve a few things and then enable 3rd parties to connect to their application to extend its value. At its core, Basecamp is a simple, self service project management software, meaning that I have been using it for months and have never spoken or interacted with anyone at 37Signals (cost of sales, support, maintenance for me as a customer = ZERO). Here's the REALLY important factor, this is my PREFRRED way to interact with 37Signals. I want self service and that preference is growing in the digital age. Do you offer the ability to work with your business in a 100% self service manner?
Software is challenging. For a long time software companies simply asked customers what they wanted and then built the features into the solution. Sounds reasonable? Customer is always right, correct? Here's why this strategy is being flipped on its head.
Revolutionary software today does less not more
Customers always want more features, more bells and whistles, more catering to how they utilize the solution in a particular way. Follow this path and you'll end up with a product that is feature rich, but essentially unusable. Adding features makes your product more complex, even if nobody uses those features! For every feature, you have to maintain the code, quality check the code, update your documentation, train your staff, train your customers, potentially translate and test in different languages, and answer the support question when somebody wanders off and clicks the button.
If you're speaking to a software vendor and every question about a feature provokes the answer, "we can add that" be careful, be very careful. Feature bloat is the number one illness afflicting software solutions today. Again and again, software that does less, more elegantly, is winning over the feature rich.
For most software solutions, the addition of a feature impacts everyone because it gets rolled into the overall product. So customer A insists on something that is unique to them; you want to please them so you roll it into the product. Pretty soon you have a gigantic assembly of features that are somewhat unconnected and hard to understand. Features slow software products down. Simple products can move faster.
Apple's introduction of the concept of a platform with an "app store" for the iPhone is such a brilliant antidote to this challenge – how do I create a product that satisfies the customer who wants only the basic functionality yet at the same time provide an avenue for the geeks (early adopters, advanced users) who want to take it in directions you haven't even thought of?
Create a simple product, limit its functionality but enable the geeks to add "apps" at will to make the product as complicated as they want. The product serves both of these distinct customers in a brilliant fashion. Don't let the geeks' requirements get in the way of the majority of the customers. Apple changed the game of the feature war by building a platform for others to extend their core product without giving up control of the core ease of use mantra.
Our interconnectedness has been another impact on software solutions; nothing is done in isolation anymore. Virtually every business process is connected or should be connected to other processes to gain efficiency and automation. For example, print is typically an action taken as part of a project, you're organizing a training event and you need to provide handouts to the students or you're launching a new product and have a print promotion as part of the launch.
Print isn't the project; it's a task within the project. Yet, our approach to print up until now was to force the customer into a new and separate "print procurement process" and then come back and coordinate that within the overall project of "training event". Worse yet, for most printers today this print procurement process is tedious, manual, and time consuming because self service ecommerce isn't yet an option through their web sites.
A modular print solution would enable the addition of a "print component" to the training event project being done in a learning management system (LMS). The user then accomplishes the "print task" within the LMS, an excellent example of delivering relevant workflows to the user, at the right time, in the right place.
What does this mean to software companies?
For new companies, it's easy, you begin developing your application assuming that virtually every function within your solution may be performed by a 3rd party component or you may become a 3rd party component to another solution. This is a radically different architectural approach than a monolithic software solution.
For legacy solutions, they have to untangle their solution in order to allow customers to use only some components and not others. Depending on the underlying architecture this can range from relatively simple to nearly impossible. This is the position Mimeo found themselves in. For eight years they operated in the monolithic solution space, or as Adam Slutsky, CEO at Mimeo commented, "a black box, with one entry and one exit." In order for you to do business with Mimeo you had to use their order entry system, their ecommerce, their production workflow, and their production. All four layers of their solution were packaged as one.
With the recent announcement of Mimeo's partnership with Franchises Services (FSI) the holding company for the Sir Speedy, PIP, and Signal Graphics franchises, it's obvious that Mimeo's black box has been opened up and componentized. In fact, if you look back at the series of announcements coming from Mimeo recently, you can connect the dots of how opening up the architecture has enabled a lot of new business opportunities. In April 2010 Mimeo announced a partnership with Scribd, enabling print from one of the fastest growing content consolidators on the web. HP then announced the Virtual Print Center, powered by Mimeo, a product that introduces an in-plant print solution (un-tethered from geography), aligned perfectly with the ever growing mobile workforce.
According to Slansky, "Mimeo's customers have been asking to use pieces of their solution for years, up until now we weren't able to deliver the solution in a modular fashion."
The FSI deal is probably the most interesting to the printing community, as it represents the first public announcement of Mimeo software being utilized by another print provider. The initial launch of the partnership will include private labeled Mimeo order entry software on each of the three brands (Sir Speedy, PIP, and Signal Graphics) national web sites. According to Kelly Kimberlin, VP Technology Development at Franchise Services, "the Mimeo partnership enables us to provide best in class software to our customers as well as extend our production hours and capacity."
What could this partnership mean?
A closer look at the two companies reveals some interesting synergies. The FSI brands clearly serve the small to medium size business (SMB) market at a local level, while Mimeo's direct sales team tend to sell to larger organizations. Mimeo's now famous turnaround (in before 9pm and out the next morning), provides real value to a local 9-5 franchisee, while the FSI network can provide that up until now elusive same day order that Mimeo has always lacked in most geographical areas.
It's an interesting partnership because virtually everyone's first thought would be "direct competitors." A pure national online printer partnering with a network of bricks and mortar local businesses sounds similar to the partnership between FedEx Office and VistaPrint announced in April 2009. Pure online providers have obviously focused and invested heavily in their order entry technology as that is essentially their only way of doing business. Retail networks have multiple "front doors" to their business, some physical and some virtual, their customers want the option to interact with them in various ways. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on brick and mortar networks to service the online community, a partnership can provide a quick way to get to market.
What if local printers were less about manufacturing and more about sales, service, consultation; leaving the manufacturing to automated large scale operations that clearly benefit from enormous economies of scale? Local suppliers have clear advantages, they are part of the local community, they can provide same day service, and print in volume is expensive to ship – so local production has its only economic advantage built in. When does the math fail to add up for local capital investments to maintain a production print center vs. outsource at a competitive margin?
Can local print providers survive as manufacturers? We've been hearing a lot about their need to expand their products and services (become marketing service providers). There is actually pressure from both sides, because the economics of automated manufacturing in large scale factories is driving them towards outsourcing vs. manufacturing. I believe in the local business model, mostly because the cost of enabling web technologies is dropping. Personal service and a brick and mortar location is your differentiator but this should not preclude you from fully participating in the digital world.
Convenience is the overriding driver for customer choice; on the web convenience means it is so easy to do business with you I can do it myself (self service). Don't let customers wander off to a national provider because you're not offering anything but full service from your local print business website.