THE OWL AND THE CENTIPEDE… A Cautionary Tale for Printers

[This article originally appeared in American Printer magazine]

A mid-size printer closed a few months ago. No big news by itself, but their story was especially poignant, because Alonzo Printing had been recognized in the press for doing many of the right things – establishing a name as an environmentally responsible printer, and repositioning the company as a marketing services provider.

Alonzo’s closing reminded me of the story of the owl and the centipede.

One day, a centipede was complaining to the wise old owl. “My feet are killing me. Every day. All the time.”

The owl thought for a moment, blinked, and said “Well, if you were a sparrow, you’d have only two legs, and just think how much better you’d feel.”

The centipede was thrilled. “A sparrow….great. How do I become a sparrow?”

The owl blinked again, turned his head and said “Don’t ask ME. I just deal in concepts…”

It’s easy for commentators and journalists to tell printers how much better they’ll feel when they’ve become marketing services providers. But becoming a sparrow is no easy feat for a centipede and becoming a marketing services provider is not much easier for a printer.

Every day brings another story of a business failure – and in almost every case, the CEO is quoted as saying “We TRIED offering marketing services, and some clients went for it. But it was a long hard slog, and we just weren‘t prepared for how long it would take, and how difficult and expensive it would be to develop the new capabilities. It didn’t cost much for the equipment, it was the staffing in entirely new areas. Marketing people, designers, programmer/developers, and people to sell the new services, because most of our existing salespeople just couldn’t get comfortable with the higher-level sale.”

Alonzo’s story should serve as a warning sign to many CEOs whose companies are trying to make the transition from being traditional printers. Being successful in selling entirely new added-value services requires much more than calling yourself a “marketing services provider.” It requires an entirely new skill-set, a new way of thinking, and entirely new kinds of people who probably know very little (and care even less) about printing.

Getting comfortable in that new marketing role is not automatic, and getting clients to believe you’re a credible resource is even more of a challenge. Merely changing the tag-line on your business card isn’t enough. Nor is telling your existing salesforce “go out and sell marketing services.”

Choosing the right direction is difficult. It requires careful thinking about your company’s strengths – some of which you won’t even begin to develop until after you decide on the direction to pursue. You also must have a business proposition that is credible with customers – which can present a problem if you can’t yet do what you’re promising. So it’s no wonder that making the transition from being just a plain old printer to something grander takes a good deal of time, ingenuity and money.

The Alonzo story is a grim reminder of the realities of being caught in the midst of making such a difficult transition. It’s also a reminder that if you’ve decided to make the transition to a new business model – whatever that model may be – you must remember to pay even closer attention to your existing business, which will be paying the bills until the new business effort reaches critical mass.

If you’re moving into new territory, you must certainly commit yourself fully to making the necessary transition, but you can’t permit yourself to be so completely diverted by the new initiative that you stop fighting every day to extract every dollar of profit from your existing business – squeezing more sales out of the existing salesforce, producing the existing jobs more productively and cost-effectively in the plant, streamlining operations and adjusting staffing levels to a realistic level of sales. All of those steps can generate the profits required to fund the time-consuming, difficult and costly transition to whatever you’ve decided your company should become.

Meanwhile, our condolences to those CEOs who have gone off in search of greener pastures and run out of food before completing their journey. Becoming a sparrow is no easy task.

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