This week’s excerpt from the forthcoming book, Disrupting the Future: Uncommon Wisdom for Navigating Print’s Challenging Marketplace by Dr. Joe Webb and Richard Romano, looks at one vital issue for the “renaissance” of the printing industry, pun intended: to think like an artist.

The following will also appear in the weekly ERC newsletter. Or it has already appeared, if you’re reading this in the future. (Or if it had already appeared, you would have read it, if you’re reading this in the pluperfect subjunctive, which would just be weird.)



The Michelangelo quote in the image above–“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”—is appropriate to a discussion about entrepreneurship and innovation. In all of our industry’s sales seminars and workshops, there's nothing that garners more attention than the sense that there are opportunities that have yet to be found. Owners and managers sometimes admonish salespeople that they are not looking for opportunities hard enough, that somehow they are hidden out there. How many times have we heard the phrase that “we’ve taken care of the low hanging fruit, now we have to go for the rest,” only to be frustrated that the higher branches don’t seem to have any fruit worth getting.

The sense that there are hidden opportunities in a marketplace that somehow one cannot see despite years of experience is every manager’s and salesperson’s nightmare. We're often asked “are we missing something?” only to tell the questioner “no, you are looking at things correctly”—followed by disappointment, which is written in large, bullet points all over their faces.

There are no real hidden opportunities—and in these times we don’t think this is the best way to think about it. It certainly does get people’s attention, but it implies that these opportunities already exist, and that the businessperson is playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek or going on a scavenger hunt, turning over rocks or rifling through dresser drawers looking for opportunities that someone has mischievously hidden. In the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, the entire plot hangs on being a good enough salesman to get access to the “good leads” rather than the unqualified cold calling lists that waste time and seem to be bare branches with no fruit.

When a market is changing, the approaches that seemed time-tested no longer work. That’s one of the ways we know the market has changed. Nothing is “hidden,” it’s actually out there in plain sight—you just have to know how to see it, but you also need to know what to do about it.

Instead, think like a sculptor. Great artists like Michelangelo weren’t looking for hidden statues; rather, they and only they saw the art “trapped” inside the rock. Once they “saw” the statue in their mind, it simply became a mechanical task of carving away the rock to “let it out.” It seemed like creativity to others, but to them it was an expression of what they had already seen that others did not.

Any other artist—a painter, a novelist, a musician—is also capable of “seeing” (or “hearing”) the things that one else can.

Likewise, an entrepreneur is someone who has an idea that no one else has had yet, and is compelled to act on it. They can look at the market and see a business/service/product that no one else can see. Once they “see” the business, it then becomes a logistical task to assemble the infrastructure to develop it and bring it to market.

There is no shortage of ideas for seeing new ideas for print businesses, but too many owners get spooked by the logistics—and there’s no reason for it.

Very often the testing of a new idea requires the assumption of risk. Entrepreneurs are not risk takers in the way people think, they are actually risk minimizers, going into situations with their eyes open, but aware that there is always the chance that they have made a mistake. Like a sculptor who may make a mistake, or find that the stone may have flaws that were not visible until it was cut and exposed, they move ahead cautiously, based on whatever information they can gather, and whatever experience they have. How do we deal with risk as innovators and entrepreneurs. Simple: we bring others into the process.

Here’s an analogy that is intended to frame the following discussion: we know of many printing companies that don’t own a single piece of printing equipment. How can that be?

Think about this. Say you want to have your kitchen remodeled. You can go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, pick out our fixtures and cabinets and design the whole room right in the store. However, Lowe’s doesn’t have actual employees come and do the work; they work with independent contractors who go out and install everything on their behalf. The project is paid for through Lowe’s and they in turn pay the contractor on the back end. The advantage for the customer is convenience, not only in that Lowe’s has everything that will be needed for the project, but there’s also the sense (which may or may not be justified by reality) that you’re getting a trusted and vetted building contractor. But the analogy is this: Lowe’s as a company doesn’t have actual contractors on staff. They outsource everything. The advantage for them is that Lowe’s knows they will sell more cabinets and appliances if they take the next step for the customer. The contractors know that having a relationship with Lowe’s is a source of business that reduces their sales and marketing costs. The customer (especially if they are a first-time home-buyer or first-time remodeler) feels as if he is getting a helping hand through what can be an expensive and potentially nightmarish process, while at the same time knows that Lowe’s has a procedure for dealing with problems as an intermediary if they are dissatisfied with the contractor.

In other words, it’s generally win-win-win for all parties concerned.

The same is true of printing companies that don’t own any equipment. They work with the customer to develop the parameters of the job, but outsource the actual printing.

It could even be said that the best way to be a successful printing company today is to not own any equipment! At least that might be the case in opening up some new markets.

In next week’s blogpost, this will be explored in more detail. We will present our six concrete strategies for making the transition to a new communications logistics company, with the goal of minimizing risk while creating a new relationship with the marketplace. Just to give you a hint of what we’ll be talking about, the six strategies are:

  • partner with another company

  • start and nurture a new business

  • ditch old equipment

  • don’t think you’re competing against yourself

  • specific products may change, but not specialty products in general

  • clean your company

Implementing the strategies themselves is not really difficult; it’s just like chipping away bits of rock to let a statue out. True, it takes some manual dexterity and skill, but the really hard part is taking that first creative leap and seeing the art—the new business opportunity—in the first place.