Saturday 14 November 2009

A rose by any other name...

Well, my American cousins are in the final countdown to Thanksgiving, and we're about to enter beta testing phase for the USA edition.  I've been waiting for about 20 years for America to go metric, but I guess it will never happen.  As a Los Angeles printer told me back then "Yes, we're going metric .... but by inches!"

So finally we are getting our act into gear and I've been trying to put realistic U.S. prices and tasks into our non-metric distribution model.

One thing that did come out of our studies, though, is that the name Printpak seems to already have too many uses that side of the Atlantic. There's American Printpak, a packaging materials manufacturer in Wisconsin, Goldrich Printpak Inc, a packaging company in Toronto, Print Pak Inc, in Texas and Printpak Inc in Missouri. In fact there are a whole load of them. Looking further afield, there are Printpaks in South Africa, Nairobi, Australia - everywhere in fact! So... (and this is what I'm getting round to) we've taken the rather difficult decision to re-brand the non-UK versions of Printpak Version 4 as PrintSum.  In the UK, Printpak remains just Printpak.

So the Printpak Partnership which owns the product now becomes the PrintSum Partnership, and we even have a new logo:

Now that means there I'm going to have a bit of a problem with what to call this Blog. Does it become the Printsum blog?  Maybe, but I think that's a problem for the future - let's get the PrintSum website up and the first non-metric version 4 out of the door first.

Best wishes from

Richard Fergusson
The Printpak PrintSum Partnership

Saturday 1 August 2009

Job costing in a free print MIS?

Well, we always promised it to ourselves, and it really seems to be here. Next week (with luck) we'll be adding job costing to our free Community edition. Everybody says "why?" so I've been trying to work out why it's so important to us.

I think it's that that we've always said - for the last 20 years or so - that any print MIS without some method of comparing real against theoretical costs is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Actually, thinking about it, its probably a damn sight more dangerous than the chocolate teapot could ever be, in that you might get a bit scalded when the chocolate melted, but the MIS could actually lose you your company.

The point is that you can do all the theoretical calculations in the world but the only real way you can find out if you're getting enough to survive on is to cost a few jobs to see how accurate your estimates are.

In practice you don't even have to cost every job. One company I know costs a random ten percent sample. They simply mark every job sheet which has a job number ending in zero with a yellow highlighter. As those job sheets go through the shop floor everyone knows that you have to fill in your times and stock usage, and at the end they get collected and entered. Then you can start to analyze task by task whether you are getting it right or not.

It's analyzing the figures that is so important. For instance it's all very well knowing your cutter costs may be out by ten percent, but you need to find out whether there was one job that skewed the sample, or whether you are consistently out and need to revise the way you estimate cutting.

So that's why we place so much importance on job costing, and why we're bundling it in the free community edition. I reckon that's a world first!

Best wishes from Printpak

Richard Fergusson

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Version 4.2 and the vendor-client relationship

Well, 4.2 is finally out there. A few teething glitches but settling down. I'm currently trying to get my head round American units. They're the same as the UK used up until around 30(?) years ago. i.e. inches and pounds weight. I remember in L.A. around 15 years ago talking to a printer about the USA going metric - after all weren't they trying out A4 paper in the White House? He said 'sure - but it's its an imperial A4 (11.69" x 8.27")'. He then added the immortal line "Yes we're slowly going metric - by inches!".

And now for all you hard-pressed printers out there - I thought you might appreciate this clip somebody sent me. It may not actually help your negotiations with print buyers, but it might bring a wry smile to your face. Been there? Often? Comment and let me know if you have ever experienced business like this.

kind regards
Richard Fergusson

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Printpak 4.2 is coming out this weekend

After months and months of ‘are we nearly there?’, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The much-awaited version Printpak 4.2 should be coming out this weekend. The goodies contained in the package are so many that I’m not even going to attempt to enumerate them, but they include job costing and cost absorption (both included even in the free community edition), stock control and full purchase order processing, together with a load of fixes and enhancements. The main menu has been overhauled too, to reduce the clutter.

The reason for including job costing in even the free version is that we think that these days it’s getting increasingly vital to identify which jobs to walk away from. To provide accurate costs for a few jobs is vital so you can see whether your quoting is accurate. The problem is that the administrative load of entering the actual cost of each job is too much for many busy printers.

One of our users in Wales came up with an interesting solution to this – he said “why don’t you just cost one in ten jobs?” He went on to explain “You just need to mark with a yellow highlighter all jobsheets with the job number ending in zero. Then you tell the people on the shop floor that if their jobsheet is highlighted, they have to write on it their ‘actuals’ (i.e. the actual time taken, and actual stock used).” The downside of this is that any highlighted jobsheet will tend to take longer to work its way through production as people will try to avoid picking it up! In this way it’s possible to get a completely accurate costing of an exact ten percent sample, which is good enough!

Friday 17 April 2009

Reverse Selling

Here’s another idea I came across for making print sales in difficult times. What about companies who have tried their own DIY marketing? You might want to call on companies who have sent you any form of junk mail or conducted any form of bad marketing.

I heard a story from a print salesman who many years ago used to do this when starting off in business. His first sale from junk mail was a cavity wall insulation company who sent him a really awful mailshot. He noted down some ideas and comments on the leaflet and posted it back to them.

Five days later he got a call from the company, and after a chat about it, he “guaranteed” to at least double their response (not hard, seeing how bad their existing efforts were). The outcome was that they commissioned him to produce their next promotion, and the resultant response rate increased from under half a percent to around three - not hard, given that their original effort was pretty dire.

So why not try phoning the companies who send you junk mail? Ask to speak to the "marketing manager" (who is usually an unqualified staff member). Tell them you have a professional interest in their promotion and asked “how did it go?” You’ll initially always get a guarded response, but when you offer a (tactful) professional opinion on the mailing you’ll get their interest and sometimes their future work. But be careful you only give away enough ideas to gain credibility and interest.

Keep on trucking!

Richard Fergusson

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Profit from the recession.

In every recession there are a vast number of losers, and a small but interesting number of winners. The purpose of this blog is to try to identify those strategies which can make printing companies winners in these difficult times.

I have my own ideas, which many of you will have heard over the years, but I would be most interested if you could tell us your ideas, to try to build a useful list of do's and don'ts.

Many years ago I had a colleague who had at one stage been a keen motorcyle racer. He told me about the time he went in for the Isle of Man TT race (for those who don't know this is a rather extreme road race - see He recalled coming round a corner, seeing a large thick fogbank that had come in from the sea, braking to kill his speed - and then noticing that a few competitors, instead of braking, accelerated suicidally into the fog! On asking them afterwards they all said that because a significant proportion of riders automatically brake, by accelerating they were creating and consolidating a position in front of the pack. They knew the road well, and had a reasonable hope that there wouldn't be any unexpected obstacles. My friend Steve said he suddenly realized that he would never win the TT!

The point I'm making is not that you have to be suicidal to win (?) but that what looks like an obstacle can in the right hands confer a competitive advantage.

Over the last few weeks I have talked to many printers and have been interested to see that they can be divided into three main camps: those who are desperate for work at present, those who are ticking over but are worried about what the future will bring, and those who are up-beat and doing well. The purpose of this blog is to allow different members of the Printpak family to help each other with comments and suggestions as to what strategies can help you take advantage of the recession and create a competitive edge.

At this stage I would normally go on about the importance of accurate estimating, etc, and not doing a job below cost. This time let's have comments from you guys (and girls). After all you are the experts!

Richard Fergusson

Sunday 1 March 2009

In this job we get to talk to a lot of printers, and a question I always ask is “so how’s it going? Are you busy?” which I must say I have been asking with greater trepidation recently. The interesting thing is that some printers do seem to be extremely busy.

On the face of it that would appear to be encouraging, as it means that companies are trying to promote their way out of recession. On the other hand the recent BPIF Printing Outlook survey reports that almost half the printing industry has been forced to cut prices despite rising raw material costs. This is obviously unsustainable in even the short turn, so what is happening?

The obvious answer is that many printers are reverting to their discredited old motto ‘Turnover is king’, or as I once heard it put ‘If I work all the hours God sends I must be doing something right!’

Well, OK. If you’re working round the clock you may be making fuller use of your resources, and your rent and admin. costs etc. are spread over more jobs, which could, if you're careful, bring your print costs down by as much as 10%. The problem is we’re beginning to see reductions in price of far more than that, which in an already squeezed industry is not, on the face of it, healthy.

But there is a rather paradoxical light at the end of the tunnel, which is that people who reduce their costs that far are actually chasing turnover for immediate survival – they simply have to, in order to pay the wage bill at the end of the month. That £30,000 job they are doing for £23,000 can be factored for £18,000 which gets them neatly out of the mess - for this month. What about next month? I suspect that we are about to see a major shake-out of those printers who do not stick to their guns when pricing.

We live in interesting times!

Richard Fergusson

Wednesday 21 January 2009

We were talking to the BPIF earlier this week about our plans, and one of the ideas that their CEO, Mike Johnson was expounding was that there were four different 'levels' of print companies, representing ascending levels of success. In his model, level 1 was (all too familiar) the world in which price is king. Here, quoting and hoping is the way that business is obtained. In the second level the printer was concentrated on selling printing as a product. In the third level the printer was focused closely on the customer and his requirements, and in the fourth and 'top' level, as far as I could see, the printer had taken off his clothes and actually gone to bed with the customer.

I must say it was not a way of looking at life that I had contemplated before. I know that when we teach Printpak to people I do have a tendency to start a sentence with "Now there are 3 principal ways in which..." (and then usually think of a fourth when I'm half way through). And I've noticed that a certain type of person often writes it down as an important classification, which is unnerving to say the least, considering I'm usually talking off the top of my head.

But thinking about what he said, there is a basic wisdom here. Yes, level 1 is where a large proportion of printers are stuck - a sort of nightmare realm where everybody is undercutting everybody else, sacrificing all for the great god Turnover. We (I hope) manage to get most users to level 2, if only by making them aware of cost and profit, and boring them rigid with the necessity of walking away from the jobs with no profit. The way I normally put it is that if you take a job where you're making a 10% loss, you'll have to do another equivalent one with a 10% profit just to break even. So even by just walking away from loss-making jobs you can increase your profit while reducing your turnover.

It's the distinction between the last two levels that I had difficulty with. His level 3 I guess is addressed by our PrintPrices system which allows users a way into the running and ordering of their own jobs. Mike reckons though that there are 'fewer but smarter' competitors at this level, which I suppose is true.

But his final level, in which the printer is virtually embedded into his customer's operation, I would have thought was not really feasible. The type of thing he was proposing I think he would describe as a 'design house', but surely the reality is that the people who really get into bed with the customer are the advertising agency, who do the concept work and then use a printer to produce it. I'm sure that some printers are starting to blur that distinction by improving their creativity, but if it becomes their central expertise as would be suggested by Mike's model, I'm equally sure that they would start to put out their printing to the level 1 guys! Yep - that completes the circle OK! Like a circle in a spiral, like a .... etc.

By the way, having got sick of explaining to people what an MIS can do for them we've now set up a site containing "A few points to consider when choosing a print MIS". Its at I hope you like it.

Richard Fergusson

Saturday 10 January 2009

Happy new year, world!

Last Wednesday my nephew came to dinner with his Thai girlfriend, who is over here on a 10 day visit, and despite a bit of a language barrier - her English isn't that brilliant and we only got as far as French at school - we had a good time. She's a bookkeeper by profession or maybe an accountant (we didn't manage to track down the precise UK equivalent). Basically she manages the day-to-day accounts for a company in Bangkok.

Talking to her I suddenly realized how despite the wars and political rows the whole world is basically on a convergence path. Bookkeeping is bookkeeping the world over, and so, I guess are printing, print estimating and management.

Can you imagine the differences between the UK and Thailand back in the 19th century? I can't help thinking of 'The King and I', though I understand that most Thai people regard it as an insultingly inaccurate portrayal of their revered king, Mongkut. Yet even then the convergence had started. His son Chulalongkorn sent his son to be educated in the UK at Sandhurst and Oxford. While looking him up I found this wonderful picture of Chulalongkorn and (presumably) all of his sons (must have had quite a busy life!) going to the British Museum in 1902. Note the Eton jackets!

Anyway what I'm getting round to saying is that we have been amazed, since the launch of our new web-site, about how far flung are the people who now download and use our Printpak software. Apart from the UK and Ireland, just a quick look at the last 6 weeks' downloaders reveals a list containing (in random order) South Africa, America, Greece, Egypt, Nigeria, Israel, India, Finland, Singapore, Bahrain, Angola and Pakistan - there are plenty more but I got bored looking!

The thing is that all of you are joined in a common understanding of the printing industry, and how it operates, in worries about the economic downturn, in concern about whether they are working efficiently, about whether to take that job at a loss because it might lead to a worth-while contract, or whether to let some poor other sap take the risk. While 150 years ago maybe some of the concepts might have been there, I can't help feeling that today we are much closer to each other.

And yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, some people want to blow other people up? Its a mad world, my masters!

Have a happy and prosperous New Year.

Richard Fergusson