Archive for April, 2009

Freedom for the Self-Employed is an Illusion

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

A reader of  Talking Through My Hat, Mr. Greg Exelby from Bellingham, Washington, phoned me Monday to discuss some of my thoughts about beng a print broker. I don’t know how much help I was to him because the business is such a double edged sword. There is tremendous freedom in running your own business and being your own person, but actually a good print broker doesn’t really have much freedom. Instead of working for one boss, you now have many bosses to please. My wife complains that I am unable to take a vacation, if I ever get one, without the cell phone ringing. Freedom for the self-employed is an illusion. To be fair we didn’t discuss the freedom aspect during that phone call, but I should have told him.

We did discuss the difficulty in starting this type of business. The old saying, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” is not true. It is more like, build a better mousetrap, figure out how to convince people that they need a better mousetrap, then sell, sell, sell until you are sick of selling.  Honestly it is sometimes a challenge to save a drowning man from drowning if you don’t first convince him of the advantages of not drowning.

Answer this question, “Who is the largest hamburger chain in the word?” If you didn’t say McDonald’s I’d be surprised. If you don’t know the brand McDonald’s you must be from the bush or under one year old. So why do they still advertise? Do you need to see another TV commercial to learn about McDonald’s. No, but for them to stay on top of the heap they have to keep telling us how terrific their burgers are. I’m not going to debate the value of the product, if marketed right and continuously anything will sell. It doesn’t have to be the better mousetrap. It’s all about marketing.

Greg sent me a promotional letter that he wrote and his resume.  He is representing himself as an International printing consultant . With over 30 years of technical and practical experience, he has the credentials. He is the real deal–the better mousetrap. Both Greg and I have witnessed customers befuddled at a press check, uneducated customers struggling with details, and customers who are clueless about the processes. Greg thought that those customers that need to use his expertise would understand the need and call him. Unfortunately, that is not the way it works. People don’t always know what is best for them, and they often don’t trust people who do know. There’s an old sales adage that says that people buy from friends. Thus becoming a friend is often more important than having the best solution or the best price. How does one become a trusted friend? It takes time, it takes patience, it takes effort. Hanging out one’s shingle isn’t enough.

To Greg and all the other Gregs out there I want to wish you luck. Becoming a print broker, printing consultant, or independent print buyer isn’t easy. It is as difficult a task as starting any business, but if you enter it as a business, and develop it on sound business practices, it can be very rewarding.

Printing: Innovate or Die

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Regular readers may have noticed that it has been a few days since I made a post. Please accept my apologies. I do have an excuse. My solution to battling  printing economic woes is to develop additional income streams. I reason that if my livelihood isn’t dependent on just one source, should one be down, the other streams can still keep my boat afloat. The problem is that I’ve spent thirty-five years developing the print broker income stream and barely three months working on the others, and since my other income ideas still revolve around printing, there is no guarantee that there will be any better payoff–is there?

There are thousands of financial gurus out there who promise to teach one, for a fee, how to make big bucks during an economic downturn. They have the secret and it’s always easy, fast, and guaranteed. Blah, blah, blah. The way you learn how to get rich is to buy what they are selling. You give them money, and they get rich. You can’t fault them. They deliver what was promised. With your money they do demonstrate the number one wealth building principle–get someone else to give you their money.

Heck, even in my own advertisement next to this blog I promise to reveal a secret that will teach printing buyers how to save money. It isn’t really a secret at all, but it does work. All of the marketing experts I’ve read say that you have to have some sort of hook to draw people in. Can I really teach methods to cut printing expenses? Yes, I believe that I can. So please forgive me if I use a little teaser to call attention to my message. All I’m attempting to do is utilize my long career in printing to help other people. If I can teach them a few techniques to help make smarter purchasing decisions, then I’ve provided a needed service. How do I know that it is needed? I meet people all of the time who have the responsibility of handling printing for their companies and they don’t even know the difference between digital and offset printing. If you don’t even know the basics you are in over your head. How many art and marketing students graduate with an understanding of printing? Not many, I can tell you. If the schools don’t teach it, how are they to learn?

So am I trying to present myself as a printing guru that will swoop in and give you a magic elixir that will fix all of your printing woes? Oh G_d, I hope not. I’m not flashy (just ask anyone who knows me), I don’t swoop, and I don’t promise anything I can’t deliver.

I hope you readers aren’t too bored by this point. I’m going somewhere with this train of thought and it isn’t just self-promotion, although it may sound like it. President Bill Clinton was quoted as saying, “Ah feel your pain.” In his position he wasn’t sharing the pain. He was above it. I have to confess that I am sharing your pain. My business is off too. My wife and I are in a position we haven’t been in for thirty years. We are struggling to make ends meet. We share your pain.

What are we doing about it? We are trying to implement some, and I hate to trivialize it with a cliche`, out-of-the-box thinking. We are attempting to establish multiple income streams and redefining our service. Would we have done this if we weren’t faced with the current difficulties? Nope. Adversity is the mother of invention, not to take anything away from Plato who said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” And when the dust settles, what will the printing industry look like? Truly, I don’t know. I can make some guesses which may or may not be right, but I am optimistic about the future. Upheavals present challenges, challenges lead to new thinking, and new thinking leads to improvement. The printers who survive will be leaner, more efficient, and I hope, more prosperous. It’s not that that we have a choice. Innovate or die. That’s the only choice.

Quality, Price, and Service–Pick Two

Friday, April 17th, 2009

Yesterday’s blog Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming spawned a response from Mel Edwards She observed that, “You make the same point several times, but with no solution. What should a buyer be asking or looking for instead of the big three that all printers claim to have?” Mel is right. I was making an assumption that the answer to the question would be obvious to the readers. Dumb assumption. Honestly I do know better and will strive to propose solutions whenever I pose problems.

To answer Mel’s question, I didn’t mean to imply that quality, price, and service were not the bedrocks of all printing.  The old printing adage is quality, price, and service, pick two. But, as a buyer of printing you should strive to get all three. The point I was trying to make was that all printers will claim to provide all three, but where does that leave you? It’s like insurance companies. They all say they are the best at one thing or another, and they back it up with volumes of statistics. If you get mired in the statistics you will never be able to choose one company over another. So, if you can’t rely on their advertisements or what their sales reps say, what can you do?

  1. Ask to see samples of work they’ve printed that is similar to your job. Keep in mind that you will only see samples of their very best. As it should be. I mean, who but a total idiot would give you a sample of a job that bombed? Look carefully at those samples to determine if there are flaws that were acceptable to the printer, but wouldn’t be acceptable to you.
  2. Ask other businesses who have used the services of that printer. If you ask, many printers are proud to give you some of their best customers to contact. They are often very excited about their customer list and want you to speak with their happiest customers. If they won’t tell you who to call, consider it a red flag.  Remember–your job will be to read between the lines. Since you’ll only be given the contacts that have an excellent relationship with the printer, it is imperative to listen to what they don’t say, more than what they do.
  3. Check with organizations like Better Business Bureau, or  Dunn and Bradstreet. This is just normal due diligence, but is it overkill? I don’t think so. Once you choose a printer you could be forming a relationship that could continue for years. How much do you think you could be spending with that printer, thousands, tens-of-thousands, hundreds-of-thousands or more?
  4. Continue shopping around or make sure your broker is getting multiple bids. Things change. Just because a printer has served you well in the past it doesn’t mean that they will always be the best choice. I like to tell a story about a local clothing chain that invited me in to work with them. The printer they had been using was a well-known, quality conscious firm, with a sterling reputation. The problem wasn’t with the printer it was with their equipment. Their presses were small and fit the needs of the clothing company when their customer base was smaller. Over twenty years the clothing company had grown, and grown. Print runs were now much larger. By switching them to a different printer, with larger presses, I was able to cut their printing expense by thousands on one job!
  5. Visit the printer’s plant. Take the time to go there and have them show you around and introduce you to people who will be involved in your work. A face they recognize is likely to get better service than someone unknown to them.
  6. Use your gut. What do your instincts tell you? If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
  7. Consider employing a print broker. Brokers are not directly connected to any printer and often work with many. A good broker knows the printers and who would be the best fit for you.

Please understand that the printing business is very competitive, and operates on pitifully small margins. I once heard that nationally, the average printer earns 6% to 9% profit. That’s not much. Of course they are eager to secure your business. They have to keep those presses running. An idle press is a huge money drain. Currently in this unfavorable economic climate, printers are hurting. It’s been reported that in the US, the printing industry is down by 40%. What all of this means is that you will probably be contacted by more printers and more often than you have in the past. Each one of them will be saying they have the best quality, the lowest prices, and the finest service–I guarantee it. Don’t make rash decisions. If your printer or broker has served you well in the past be sure to give them extra points for service. Loyalty pays off. Just make sure your loyalty isn’t misplaced.

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