by Jordan Darragh, PrintReleaf

When I sat down to both research and outline my thoughts in preparation for writing this article, I looked back at all the recent blogs, news articles, and industry magazine columns I had saved, bookmarked, or read in the last six months. I figured this exercise would give me a pulse and representation of “new technologies” in our industry … and it did. However, while combing over headlines and digging into details I kept coming back to one simple question: What is “our industry”?

My background originates in sales in the remanufactured imaging supplies market. That’s a sophisticated way of saying I used to sell used toner. Yet, here I am reading headlines and articles in industry trades whose titles are all related to image, office, and print, but whose content and headlines are dominated by terms and acronyms such as cloud, workflow, Enterprise Content Management (ECM), 3D, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), SaaS, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and, of course, MPS. This snapshot of terms reveals emerging technologies across the landscape of current MPS providers – especially those in the dealer channel, and that perhaps looking at where the industry has come from may be the best indicator of where it’s going; i.e., history repeats itself. There is a consistent theme in the history of a number of dealers in MPS: many of them are family run businesses that have been around for decades. Not just 10 or 20 years, but 50, 60, or 70-plus years. You read about second- and third-generation ownership. You read about the company’s roots selling typewriters and calculators. At one point in time, these “new technologies” represented the next big new thing. In today’s business world, they are now extinct.

So what are we to make of it? How do we look back to look forward and predict the future? How do we make smart decisions now to position our businesses for future growth, profit, and success? A typewriter dealer 40 years ago could have taken its business in many different directions upon the emergence of the word processor and then the PC, and the extinction of the typewriter. He could become a computer and peripherals VAR.He could become a copier dealer, as many reading this have. Or — you name it. He could do almost anything; specialize to beat the speed of the market and just sell RAM, for example.

Analysis of the first two examples shows both were obviously legitimate business opportunities, yet they were uniquely different. The speed and evolution of the PC and server market was faster, representing transactional sales on three- to four-year refresh cycles. It was highly competitive without any real, residual accompanying revenue stream to support it. While the copier and imaging market evolved quickly as well, it was, and primarily still is, a low priority in today’s IT world. In IT budgets, printers and copiers often take a back seat to spending on and advancing an organization’s hardware and software technologies. As someone who has made their living in the imaging space, it’s been a profitable road buoyed by not only a similar three to four year refresh cycle on the hardware but, moreover, an accompanying revenue stream that provides healthy profits and cash flow. To me, this relatively slow evolution of “new technologies” in the conventional MPS industry is a good thing.

I attended a sales seminar, “Power Selling,” hosted and presented by Stephen Power in 1999. At that time, the headline was “Convergence.” This was the overall theme and I was there to learn about the convergence of the industry; i.e., how the advent of the multifunction device (MFD) was about to eliminate the copier, the fax, the scanner, and the printer. At the time I was rooted in the printer silo, selling primarily toner cartridges on a transactional basis to end user customers. I was told (and was sold), “You should be very afraid, because your business is about to be extinct in less than two years (by 2001), unless you attend this seminar and become an expert selling MFDs.” I took the bait, listened to my fear, paid a lot to attend, and then, of course, went back to selling toner cartridges. Power was right, as much as he was wrong. By 2001 there was a lot of convergence taking place. OEMs were selling consolidation, lower cost per page, and it worked. But not entirely. Meanwhile, the advent of MPS was just beginning as, really, the reciprocal to the conventional copier model; i.e., marketing cost per page on printers. I remember, about this same time, learning about Print, Inc., PrintFleet, FMAudit, and the like. There was disruption across industry models. However, underneath it all, customers continued to print and copier dealers fought for printer market share. Toner remanufacturers became MPS providers and fought to protect market share while, at the same time, adopting copier lines to fend off their competition. Yet here we are, 14 years later, and not much has really changed except for the business model. Many customers worldwide still purchase toner on a transactional business. The laser printer is still alive and well, with some manufacturers citing growth in A4 over A3. The MFD still has its place as the default device but, ironically, it wiped out the copier, fax, and for the most part the scanner, but not the printer. Dealers universally represent at least one full equipment line. But underneath it all, only one thing has really changed in the core MPS business: automation through software, allowing users to benefit from proactive versus reactive document management. The customers still copy and they still click “File > Print.” Dealers still enjoy hardware sales (lease renewals) and, more importantly, residual profit and cash flow.

That’s a long way of saying, if not asking: What is new? What is next? I can look back 40 years and a lot has changed in the computer industry. If you jumped in, maybe you had an early exit, maybe you got crushed. Whereas I can look back 14 years in the copier and printer industry (if not 40 years) and besides a slow decline in pages, the introduction of color (and a bump in revenues), and evolution toward an automated MPS model, not much has changed. Customers still copy and print – a lot. So unless you are considering making an investment in BPO or ECM and ultimately adding or shifting your business in this direction, I expect the new technologies in MPS to continue as a series of nuances because, in MPS, history is repeating itself. So with that in mind, new technologies are subtle enhancements and improvements that ultimately represent opportunity to gain expertise, advantage, and a leadership position toward capturing more of what we already know: that the MPS marketplace is still a great opportunity to build a residual profitable business. Therefore, perhaps a more focused question to answer is: What are the new enhancements, nuances, and improvements that offer this opportunity?

Predictive Automation:Data Collection Agents (DCAs) aren’t necessarily new, but there are enhancements within these evolving applications that offer opportunity; for example, the bridge between supply alerts and toner fulfillment. For many, this is still a human exercise that is more costly and leaves margin for error. Today, wholesale toner distributors are bridging the gap with technology to reduce these issues. Look no further than Supplies Network’s Application Programming Interface (API) development to not only assess the percentage of life remaining on toner, but also the rate of consumption to better drive predictive analytics, timing, and fulfillment. This not only removes direct cost of human intervention, but also reduces margin for error, and stretches the value of each toner cartridge sale underneath an MPS contract.

Rules-Based Printing: Many customers have adopted MPS and have visibility into their print environment at the device or fleet level. However, most do not have visibility into the user or application level. For example, they are blind to who prints what and how much it costs. Applications such as PaperCut, ROI Print Manager, and PrintAudit are not only mining this data, they are making it actionable. It’s a two-tiered approach: 1) monitor and report print behavior by user and by application; e.g., how many print jobs derive from MS Outlook, and how many of those were in color and 2) make it actionable by programming rules into these same applications such that when print jobs are processed by the print server they are subject to rules which enforce company policy; e.g., switching all email print jobs to monochrome from color.

Automatic Sustainability: API connectivity within existing technology enables the evolution of new applications such as PrintReleaf. PrintReleaf automatically measures and certifiably reforests every sheet of paper across a network of global reforestation projects. Whereas many customers are focused on recycling, which slows down deforestation, it doesn’t guarantee reforestation. As a result, printing and paper consumption are often perceived negatively. PrintReleaf not only better neutralizes environmental impact, it also better sustains the business practice of printing.

As you can see, many “new technologies” are actually enhancements to tried and true technologies with new support systems and benefits. And, while our industry continues to evolve and change, it also stays the same.

Jordan Darragh is the founder and CEO of PrintReleaf, provider of The PrintReleaf Exchange (PRX), a cloud-based program that converts paper consumption into trees.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Imaging Channel.

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