Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Of Pirates and Digital Printing…

Of Pirates and Digital Printing you say, well that is the story of my life; this I make a conscious decision to unravel for you. Though there are many that would try to convince you otherwise the question still remains is the industry that surrounds document imaging equipment a noble profession? Every day I watch salespeople draw their swords and banter back and forth over territory squabbles, commission debates and the prospects in their pond. For the love of money this too is the reason that technology has overtaken such a noble industry like commercial printing. From what was once a simple and majestic art, created by the skilled hands of artisans taught by their fathers and their fathers alike. Now just the hum of electronic circuit boards and the flow of powered ink that spills upon blank pages are monitored by the children of a new generation. Pulverized, polymerized, organic, chemical, toner now called by many "dry ink" comes in many shapes and sizes but one thing remains the same; we will charge you many ways for it to lie down on your beautiful blank pages.

This is a story of the death of a noble art and a young man's desire to learn to harness the power of the printed word and to capture the impact of color and visual symbology. This young man was Pirate Mike and this is his story...

It was the summer of 1990 and we had recently moved to Oklahoma from Bellingham, Washington. My mother was volunteering for a local church that was lightly staffed and was looking for any and all help to help spread the good word. With an X386 computer, a 300 dpi laser printer and a $29 copy of print shop deluxe or something similar they had to find a way to create a church newsletter.

My mother had been a part of the high school newspaper and had done some free lance writing for a local paper back home, but putting together a church newsletter was not really her expertise. With most of the material being written by church staff what she did know is that it was going to involve that X386 PC and that she did know; she knew nothing about.

When questioned my mother boldly said, "Well if it involves a computer I'm sure my son can figure it out." I can still remember the day when I was handed about 5 type written pages that had been typed by an electronic typewriter and was sat down in front of was at the time a behemoth of a personal computer. Approximately 48 hours later, 4 clip art books, 1 floppy disk full of 5 or 6 fonts and the use of a flatbed scanner at a local print shop the first issue of the church newsletter was almost complete.

After a marathon of sweat, blood and tears I was then given the task to get this grand publication printed and in 2 color no doubt (black and an odd pms color). After about 50 phone calls and numerous visits to local print shops a deal was struck and a deadline given we were well on our way to having a finished product. The church was awakened by this new communication that had been handed out that morning before service. And somewhere before the "you are released" and after the offering it was mentioned that we have Sandee's son to thank for the newsletter. It wasn't but several weeks later that I started to get a bit of attention over the work being done on the church newsletter.

I can still remember one Sunday after service when a man walked up and asked me if I could do some business cards for him. Design, print and deliver was the task he needed me to complete. At the end I handed him 500 business cards and he preceded to hand me some money, I told him that I really wasn't a graphic designer and didn't feel comfortable taking his money. He said, "You did the job that I would have given to another and this money you deserve." I graciously took the money, and inside was very grateful as at the time I had no gainful employment.

It was not long before I really didn't have time to get a job I was way too busy doing design and brokering print to several local print shops. Business cards, letterhead, envelopes, brochures and marketing pieces; little did I know that this new found skill would carry me over the next couple of decades. I finally went to a local technical school and took some adobe classes and an offset printing operations class so that I would have a stronger foundation for working with printers and be able to speak their new found language.

Eventually I did leave the world as a print broker and designer to work behind the presses in print shops all over Tulsa Oklahoma. Old beaten down equipment I had run it all; from setting lead type in chases for a 100 year old windmill letterpress to stripping up negatives with rubylith for exposure plate making. I received a lot of practical experience in the darkroom shooting halftones and line work, and in my off hours would practice at a friend's shop just paying for the materials that I used. After several years doing paste up and every menial job that can be found in a print shop I got my first break. I had worked through most of the small format duplicators (AB Dick, Hamada, Chief, Multilith, Ryobi, Davidson to name a few) and had worked my way up to a second pressman working on a 40" 6 color Kamori learning the art of high end color work for Roger's Lithographic when I got a call from my placement service. They needed to place a temp to perm spot in a small town called Dewy Oklahoma about an hour north of Tulsa.

It turns out that this new process had just come out this new thing called "digital printing." And this new company Indigo has created one of the first digital presses the E Print 1000. Now considering that only about 400 of these presses had been sold worldwide it was going to be a challenge. One I had to move to Dewey, then I had to learn the electro-mechanics of a copier as this was the basis for the platform. This small format press had to have sapphire coated papers and at the time there were about 6 papers that we could use. The company was Central States Business Forms and was the 17h largest continuous forms printer in North America. They were getting ready to try their hand at Digital Printing and I was chosen to learn the madness.

After 6 months of training and many months of trials and tribulations they disbanded the project all together and sent us all home. I don't know what happened to the 2 Indigos that they bought but it was a turning point in my understanding of printing and the future possibilities of digital printing. I came home and started to work for ABC Printing in Coweta. Over time I had gained some respect with the owner and we had even talked about setting up a second shop in Tulsa that someday I could own through "sweat equity." This had always been my dream to have my own shop and to further my knowledge of printing.

I have always been a rebel and found myself taking unusual paths to follow my dreams. A pirate if you will. The word Pirate comes from the Greek word peira. The Greek word πείρα (peira) means assay, trial, attempted, or experienced. Pirates were and are entrepreneurs. They lived very democratically and paid close attention to their crews. They lived by "articles" or rules, many of which we have adopted today. They offered workers compensation should they get injured while following the common goals of the ship. I have always followed my heart and a day came when I got the opportunity to work for a wildlife sanctuary that lured me away from my dreams of printing.

After about a 4 year sabbatical from printing taming the likes of Tigers and Bears Oh My, (Another story entirely) I came back to printing but in a different capacity, "Equipment Sales." My first job would set me up for what would become an infamous ride and new career beginning. Now while apprenticing at Minolta I was to truly learn the art of piracy and what it meant to be truly a corporate pirate. While under the tutelage of Zack Jones, sales manager for Minolta soon to become Konica Minolta I was to learn the art of sales and the 7 deadly sins of a copier salesman, up front, close and personal. Here is where I made my first 6 figure income. No education, No experience, just the drive to make things happen and enough common sense to listen and learn a new way of living.

Konica Minolta had 2 branches Dallas and Fort Worth; I worked for the Fort Worth branch and quickly learned that we were a merry band of "thieves." Not allowed to pirate in the building, but was given free rein on anything and anyone that was not "in the building." This is where I learned my art; this is where I earned my title. Stealing business from competitors became the battle cry. Never left behind we all made our president club trips and even set sail on the high seas on a circle of excellence trip on the Royal Caribbean ship "enchanted seas." Konica Minolta had been a good master and provided me more than just an education they had provided me a strong 6 figure income and a pirate's home.

Digging for pain and anything else that we could add up to create a compelling business reason to buy, buy now and buy big! Here I learned the art of piracy! Over the years at Konica Minolta I quickly learned that big copiers hit quotas quicker and were the "sexier" of sales. I quickly went to selling what I knew, "printers." I moved into the production print specialist role which was a new position with the company and then after my promotion I came to an impasse. I had made more money as a down the street rep then fighting the good fight with printers for large sales with low margins. Becoming the hunter I had given up a gravy customer base and large MIF to take on the impossible and sell entry level production color and black and white copiers to printers that would ultimately destroy the equipment and push it way beyond what anyone at Konica Minolta thought it would do. Dealing with hard to get credit approved and very high maintenance customers became my passion. Keeping a cell phone close and answering at 8pm or on a Saturday afternoon became a way of life.

From the Minolta C900, to the 3102 and the C5001/8050 soon to be a force in the light weight production equipment Konica Minolta was quick to learn from mistakes and reengineer what had to be done to garner a position with the big boys, Canon and Xerox. Needing a stronger income and more opportunity I kept my eyes open. I was passed up for an entry level sales management position and was refused a transfer to keep up with my mentor Zack and his career progression (Branch Manager of the Austin Branch). I left Konica Minolta to take a Color Systems Specialist position with the 2nd largest independent Canon Dealer Datamax to sell the soon to be released imagePRESS and the Konica Minolta production equipment as a newly formed On Demand Publisher Dealer. Well I started at the end of 2007 the imagePRESS hadn't been released and Datamax was not yet authorized to sell the Konica Minolta equipment. As a result I wasted a lot of time and energy while waiting for these 2 events to happen. Thinking in error that they would have an established production base I again was fooled into the lure of "Big Iron" and "Big Money." 10 Months of struggling and with the new understanding that I could not be competitive in the Commercial Printing market at such a small dealer with very ridged ways I had to again make a choice.

What lured me to Datamax was the idea that a smaller company could react quicker to a local market and be more competitive as we could make decisions "on the ground." What I found out is that as a smaller company they did not have the resources to support such complex solutions and high volume clients. I found that it is much more about power and control as there is little to go around. Things were not as they seemed and they proved to be ineffective with inappropriate margins in a vertical market that demands the best price and the most labor intensive service. With 4 other Canon Dealers in the market selling the same product and a dozen Konica Minolta dealers differentiation was almost impossible unless you truly could talk the talk and come up with business solutions that addressed production problems and enabled printers to make more money and quicker. Unable to compete I started to get nervous, should I have left Konica Minolta? Maybe I should have taken the income hit and just waited things out; surely another promotional opportunity would have come my way if I had stayed.

Spending many hours every day working with the new Canon imagePRESS that we had on our demo floor I was beginning to build up my skill set for the next level in my production sales career. Now hitting the ground running I was making my way around town with this new challenger to the world of production "big iron." I could see that the imagePRESS was my future; now I just needed a company that I could sell for that could support it and be competitive in a market that IKON proved that commoditization was just a good place to start.

Quickly making an appearance on the commercial printing scene soon I became a recently acquired asset for the newly created commercial print initiative for IKON Office Solutions. Now selling the Canon imagePRESS, the Konica Minolta production equipment relabeled as IKON gear and the Kodak Digimaster black and white production gear relabeled as Canon IR 110/125/138/150's. I had truly made it. Selling the "Big Iron" to big companies with the knowledge that I wouldn't be beat on price. Bringing with me my well refined pirate ways now with one more shtick in my repertoire I came on board and started down a long road. Now divorced from my wife and companion for 10 years, and living aboard a French Sailing Vessel I had about created enough "unusualness" to make anyone nervous. Now the new guy again, Pirate Mike came aboard the IKON ship and started to do damage. Getting involved in the PIA and participating in every training session that came along I prepared to do battle with HP, Kodak, Xerox, Oce and Konica Minolta. Along with the normal cast of Offset characters that now were fighting for floor space in the print shop in this new age of digital printing. We sponsored the 2008 Dallas Digital Printing Conference, the Nolan Moore Golf Tournament benefiting the PIA educational scholarship fund, we showed up anywhere people would let us. Banging our chests and beating our drums we walked to the beat of a different drummer.

Starting a new company with new products I went to work. Having to start from scratch, creating my own list and fighting for any printer that might have potential I had to fight local account executives as well as major account reps. No one wanted to give up anything, keeping anyone that had ever mentioned that they might buy from IKON I ended up with whatever everyone wanted to discard. Selling into the Franchises and Commercial printers was not going to be an easy task even with a company as big as IKON. After about 10 months of taking names and placing many imagePRESS units, we heard the news. IKON was to be acquired by Ricoh and the imagePRESS would be shortly going away. My now well developed pipeline started to look like a white elephant. With this knowledge I stood and stared at the wall of my cube. Do I just jump ship? Or just jump out the window of our 3rd story floor? Do I run as many have and will? Should I quickly look at my options and find a new master?

Ricoh knew what she was purchasing; pirates are what she needed and pirates are what she got. Now with new bounties in place most of the experienced sailors stayed aboard and paid respect to a new captain. New ship, new crew and new guns we went to war under a new flag. Ricoh did not have the footprint that IKON had, nor did she have the production experience or talent in sales, service or professional services to do service to any new innovations that she would bring to market. Without a way to sell and market such new inventions they would be rendered useless and of no effect in such a competitive landscape. Their own PPBG (Production Print Business Group) had been in existence for several years with no justice being served. It was now IKON's chance to shine and shine she will.

Well the merger came and went and the "business as usual" statements got quite old but everyone's fears that IKON would fall apart and that people would move to CBS or another Canon dealer quickly faded. As crew we just kept tabs on what was going on and just made sure that we "held on tight" as this was going to be Mr. Toads wild ride for sure. Trying to learn about our new master and the products which we were surely going to half to sell the job became learning the Ricoh story and taking a close look at the products that they have brought to bear.

Now we stand before the door with swords drawn and with a new tool of destruction and we are ready to wield it. The Ricoh Pro C900 Color Production System new to the market and a new name all together in the production print arena. Loaded with goodies from another (Hitachi Printing Systems – designer of many production print engines) this newly Ricoh wrapped treat has to earn its place in the production world along others that have been doing this for generations. So what does the future hold for the pirates of digital printing? Keep reading to find out only time will tell…

"Our voyages are very short in comparison to the time we spend telling the stories that come from them." – Pirate Mike

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