Carl Gerhardt, president and CEO of Allegra Network and Mike Stevens are well known to quick and small commercial printers. Both are former shop owners: Carl and his wife, Judy, opened an American Sir Speedy center in Colorado Springs in 1985. Stevens launched Express Press in Fargo, ND, in 1983.
Early on, a typical quick printer had a retail location with an Itek camera, a duplicator/offset press, and self-serve and high-speed copying. “While-you-wait printing was the order of the day,” recalls Gerhardt. “Successful operations evolved into the non-retail, small commercial B2B market. During the 1990s, Kinkos and the office super stores began to fill that retail space. ‘On demand’ became a buzz word, and most commercial shops, large and small, could offer quick turnaround.”
Since then, Stevens has seen small shops decrease dramatically: “It has been sad, in many ways, but it has created enormous opportunities for the courageous and creative ones.”
It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday
In the 1980s, starting a quick print business was relatively cheap. Annual industry growth was 10-15%. Gerhardt recalls one comment he heard at an NAQP meeting: “You could be fall-down stupid and make it, back then.” In the mid1990s, desktop publishing and related advancements changed the competitive landscape. “The industry matured, with very little real growth, and consolidation started,” says Gerhardt. “Now, these are very complicated businesses to run, with large capital involved. It takes professional management with financial sophistication.” Sales and marketing also are key.
Capital investment, to keep up with technology and human resource needs, is critical. “It is very difficult for the owner of a small operation to be a master of all trades and still find time to work on the business rather than just in it,” says Gerhardt.
Stevens' scope has expanded beyond newsletters — he now offers e-mail marketing, website creation, direct mail and social media marketing packages. He's also got a blog: www.gutenblog.com. “Blogging gets you really close to your followers,” he says. “The candor gets more people in the conversation.”
He says social media can be an effective inbound marketing tool. “It has great potential because of its low cost and wide reach.”
“Successful printers keep on marketing. If you don't, you're dead. You must have a really good website. You need to keep doing direct mail because it works. E-mail marketing is better than most think, and social media marketing is well worth the time. The secret is to keep doing it every month. Tell your story and gain people's trust. When you do, you'll win.”
Gerhardt calls the industry “dynamic and challenging”: “The transition to marketing communications provider is really the exciting part. Most printers need to think a lot bigger and think differently than in the past. The writing is on the wall: You had better diversify into some new sources of revenue beyond what we define as printing today or you will find growth difficult.”
“In January 2010, we introduced the Allegra-Marketing-Print-Mail [identity]. Print still is the backbone, but it's not only about print anymore.
“We take our centers through a complete certification program long before they make the full transition to marketing services provider. We back members up with a cadre of former agency experts in writing marketing plans, designers, copywriters and Internet/social media experts.”