Dickeson--Are You Ready for eB2B?
First came Noosh, Collabria, Impresse, Printmarket and 58k—all Internet dotcoms seeking to interpose their facilities between print buyers and printers— brokers or auction floors made in the image of the New York Stock Exchange.
Now, here comes another dotcom: printCafe, which has merged Logic Associates, Hagen, Prograph, AHP Systems, Programmed Solutions, parts of Creo and perhaps others by the time this writing is on your desk. printCafe seeks to become a super-broker by guiding and supporting both buyers and printers in the administration of their businesses—and collecting a commission!
E-commerce mania is sweeping our industry—e-commerce of the B2B (business-to-business) variety rather than the e-tailing (Amazon, etc.) sort. What's really wonderful about it is this practice of putting an "e" before a word, doing an IPO and becoming instant paper billionaires, all the while losing money in great gobs.
We are on the threshold of the next phase of development for the six named contenders for the print e-procurement crown: the shakeout phase. Their contesting efforts to add economic value to justify their compensation promises us a demolition derby of mergers and acquisitions over the next 24 months.
Indeed, the Internet is reshaping the world economy in a matter of months, compared to the decades required of the agricultural, industrial and computer revolutions. And it's really just getting started. We have yet to feel the full impact of bandwidth and storewidth technology for e-commerce on the Internet. George Gilder calls it the Age of the Telecosm, as we leave the Age of the Microcosm.
Myths and Metaphors
Meanwhile, down here in the trenches, "don't quit your day job." Don't release your sales and customer service departments just yet. We've got a long way to go. We're still struggling with virtual reality statistical systems because most of us remain locked in quill-and-sandbox accounting from pre-Columbian times, plagued by antique assumptions of hourly chargeable and non-chargeable costs. If the myths and metaphors of those creaky concepts provide some measure of comfort for you, that's nice—Linus still has his comfort blanket in our memories of Charlie Brown.
The other day I asked the CEO of a print software company why he didn't promote customer use of pivot tables for the wonderful data his system collects. He responded, "We make sure they know the database is in an Access format and that it is open to them. About one in 25 to 30 customers ever calls to ask more, and only one asked us for our formulas/field names/tables so he could do more in-depth functions."
That's one out of his base of approximately 500 users! And we're talking real production data from this system, not just info about chargeable hours. My strong suspicion, from talking to others, is that his experience is typical of other computer data services, accounting and otherwise.
We're just not ready for cyberspace. We don't even use what we already have. Trouble is that the monthly mumbo-jumbo of general ledger and cost accounting systems has made us cynics. We now have "left field so fouled up no one can play it," as Casey Stengel said. It's turned us away from using statistical data to make informed decisions.
Perhaps the cyber-brokers can provide a real value-added service for printer clients if their presence and activity forces us to concentrate on the basic realities of liquidity and productivity in our print management. That could well be a result. Let's put aside our security blankets and forget chargeable hours for the moment. Look at liquidity first.
By liquidity, we mean the rate of speed at which assets convert to cash in the bank. Cash itself, inventories and receivables are the centers of liquidity. Give us good, weekly reports for each of the three items and we can get ready for B2B e-commerce. Hey, Mr. NooshCafe or whatever, show us how to watch the cash flow. Give us a form and teach us how to use it for decisions. We can get lean and mean in a hurry.
Give us a form that will show us every week how fast we're turning over our raw inventories. Tell us what the rate has to be to play hardball in the cyber-league. Or don't you know, Señor ImpresseCollabria? Better find out so we can all add some value.
As effective as it may be in the short term, we can't hire some goon with a baseball bat to break legs to collect our receivables. But we do need to get liquid. So, Monsieur 58Printmarket, provide us a weekly form that will show us how many hours (not days) those nice jobs you provide will drag our cash after we invoice. Teach us what to do. Tell us the steps. We don't get that every week from our trial balances and non-chargeables. We want to be dotcom-patible, if we must.
If only one out of 25 of us is even curious about using the process data we have available, and only one in 500 is challenged to dig deeper, how can we possibly compete in an auction-type environment?
We've suspected for some time that we will need to change the business model, shift the culture paradigms of the past. Is quasi-brokerage on the Internet now the engine of that change? It is proving to be such for many other industries. Is productivity now being thrust upon us? Are we facing a "Get far more competitive or die" condition? Like the fog, it's sneaking up on us on little cat feet, as the poet says. We'll accept help from any reasonable resource to be in business tomorrow.
Okay, printCafe, et al: If you have help to give to make us more efficient in our use of time, materials and capital, then we're listening. That would truly add value to your service and ours. Submit your proof that you can provide more than stale and complex general legerdemain and mythic utilization assumptions and bring on your dotcoms.
—Roger V. Dickeson
About the Author
Roger Dickeson is a printing productivity consultant based in Tucson, AZ. He can be reached by e-mail at Roger@prem-associates.com, by fax (520) 903-2295, or on the Web at http://www.prem-associates.com.