Who told Franklin to “Go fly a kite?”

By | October 20, 2010

By T. J. O’Hara   Terry O'Hara - The Common Sense Czar

 Remember me?  The industry heretic?  The guy who’s not willing to accept that fact that margin erosion can’t be overcome?  Heck, if you’ve read the political satire in my blog and books, you know that I even think our current political process can be fixed.  Talk about being an “eternal optimist!”  So, if there’s hope for a system that’s being intentionally run into the ground for narcissistic gain, there’s just got to be room for improvement in the venerable profession of printing.

I’m wearing my WWFD bracelet today (What Would Franklin Do?), so it’s only appropriate to start out with that question.  If he was alive (and according to Acorn, he’s still registered to vote in three States), what would Franklin do if he was confronted by the commoditization of printing?  Oh sure, he might pursue a career in alternative fuels since he seems to have had a fascination with electricity; he might changes career paths and venture into energy conservation through the development of a more efficient stove; or he might advance the design of reading glasses.  Then again, if we stop printing things, there won’t be anything to read. 

But are we really in the printing business?  The reason I ask that question is because of a Board meeting I disrupted back in 1997.  The company was hemorrhaging money and, as the company’s new “hired gun,” I entered the Board room as a potential sacrificial lamb.  My opening statement was as follows:

 “We claim to have been ‘The Worlds Largest Business Forms Company’ for the past 117 years, and I’m here to tell you – that isn’t even the industry we’re in.  We’re in the business of capturing, utilizing, archiving and retrieving business information.  The only reason we’ve deluded ourselves into believing that we’re in the printing business is because, for about the first 112 of those years, ink on paper was the only viable media through which we could provide our service.  That no longer is the case.  If we don’t learn to transition from an analog world to a digital environment, we won’t even be around in another five years.”

Needless to say, a few of the older Board members needed to be revived, but it marked the day that the company began to reassess its business.  Within a year, we turned a $548 million loss into a $93 million profit.  Sure, we had to switch from red ink to black to print our financials, but it was worth it.

Obviously, redefining who and what we were was important, and it’s just as important to you today.  However, the story does not end there … nor did it end well in the case of the company.  There were other behavioral changes that needed to be embraced that the company wasn’t willing to address.  I left to direct another successful turnaround at a competitor … and my former employer went out of business as a standalone company (being acquired by another firm) … within five years … as predicted.

The moral of the story is:  it isn’t enough just to declare that you’re going to redefine yourself. 

With the growing popularity of the concept of evolving Printing Services Providers into Marketing Services Providers to “get more respect,” it’s important to understand this.  Declaring yourself to be an MSP doesn’t make you one.  I could declare that I’m 7 foot tall, but an NBA team would probable see through the façade.  So will your customers … unless you truly can deliver the services of an MSP.

As a result, you have two choices:  (1) develop the skill sets that will be expected of you as an MSP; or (2) redefine your offering another way.  In regard to the latter, you need to gain clarity with respect to those aspects of business in which you shine.  Is it Speed?  Quality?  Service?  Price?  Two or more of the above?  If the answer is “None of the above,” it might be time to invent your version of the lightning rod, Franklin stove, or bifocals; after all, that’s what Franklin would do.

 If you believe your company is particularly competitive in some area, then think through how you can exploit that strength.  How can you better communicate that differentiation to the marketplace?  If you’re going to become a Marketing Services Provider, a good place to start would be demonstrating the ability to successfully market your own business.  Just renaming it won’t do the trick.

Another key ingredient concerns how you communicate any element(s) of differentiation to your team.  Having directed turnarounds in a wide variety of scenarios over the years (high-tech, low-tech and no-tech firms ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies), there has been one common component:  the people.  Whatever direction you choose to pursue, make sure that everyone on your team is “on board” and embraces it.  Otherwise, they should consider inventing their version of the lightning rod, Franklin stove, or bifocals … somewhere else.

If you want to redefine your business in a way that will distinguish it in the marketplace, do it by delivering a consistently superior experience to your customers; from the way they are first greeted on the phone to the way you follow up after delivering your product and services.  If the behavioral component isn’t firmly established within every member of your team, you’re leaving the door open for competition.


 (T.J. O’Hara’s books (The Left isn’t Right; The Right is Wrong; and The National Platform of Common Sense) are available at Amazon.com and through his website: www.TheCommonSenseCzar.net You can also find his political musings on his CommonSenseCzar blog. blog is available at TheCommonSense Czar.blogspot.com

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