Peer-to-peer networking isn't about giving up trade secrets, but mutually useful interaction
Three or four years ago, the team at Crawley-based Document Options decided they needed to do something different. The company was founded in 1974 as a microfilm and litho printing bureau and evolved into a document scanning and management and digital print business, but it had hit something of an impasse. Like many other printers, Document Options was starting to find that a business model of competing mainly on price was no longer as viable as it had once been.
"We decided we needed to offer different products – more high-end, personalised products," says production manager Dan Patience. "We needed to diversify and be a little bit different."
Crucial to achieving this, he continues, was switching from one digital vendor, whose machines were presenting quality issues, to purchase a duo of HP machines. "Though it’s not quite the right word, we did used to be more of a copyshop, but in the past five years we’ve certainly become more of a commercial printer with digital equipment. We’re selling more high-end brochures, doing our own finishing; we’ve invested a lot of money in good equipment recently."
But bringing in new kit to diversify the Document Options offering, which now includes a whole range of marketing and wide-format products, has been only half the story. Crucial to coming up with innovative new ideas about how to best serve customers – and deciding what kit to invest in to do this with – was a bit of old-fashioned networking – an activity that many business leaders may, to their detriment, take for granted.
The kind of networking Document Options has been upping the ante on isn’t, however, necessarily the sort that printers might traditionally associate with being the most worthwhile. Certainly, taking any available opportunity to talk to potential new customers is always a good idea. But equally valuable, Patience and his team have discovered, is forging links with other printers.
This revelation came as a result of joining HP’s Dscoop network, reports Patience. "When we bought our Indigo 5600, HP was sponsoring Dscoop membership, so we got a year’s membership," he says. "I attended the EMEA meeting in Barcelona last November, which was a two-day event, and since then we’ve been to quite a few one-day HP events in the UK," he reports.
What was particularly valuable about the Barcelona event, he adds, was that seminars had a particularly strong emphasis on real-life case studies of printers who used certain products or had experience of certain new offerings, with many of these led by the printers themselves. And just as valuable as the seminars, was the chance to build relationships with peers and industry thought-leaders.
"The people driving it and directing it are people like [Precision Printing managing director] Gary Peeling and [ProCo managing director] Jon Bailey, very successful people in what they and we do," says Patience. "It’s about sharing knowledge. They’re very open to telling others about, for instance, the pitfalls in marketing web-to-print services, or an MIS you should look at."
Patience explains that having the chance to network with other printers is not only valuable during the event itself, but also on an ongoing basis.
"You see lots in the trade magazines about what ProCo and Precision Printing are doing, but at Dscoop you’re able to actually go out for an evening with Jon Bailey, and you end up chatting to him as a colleague," says Patience. "I haven’t any reservations that if we were going to do something I could pop him an email and I would know he’d answer and help me."
Having realised how beneficial printer-to-printer networking can be, the Document Options team has been conscious to make a real effort to do this just generally, not only at Dscoop events. Whether at a HP event or a trade exhibition, the company’s approach has, then, been to challenge the slightly ‘closed-shop’ mentality that has in the past been associated with the UK printing industry.
"It was very secretive, I think," says Patience. "I guess we were like that to some extent. When you met another printer you wouldn’t necessarily think to just start giving away all of your secrets and tricks. You’d think ‘why should I tell you that?’ But now there’s more openness. People have realised you’re better off working together because you might help somebody out and then they might help you out with some advice."
"That new openness is probably because of the way digital print has evolved over the years," continues Patience. "It’s a lot more solutions-based and problem solving for people; it’s not just a case of ‘we can do so many flyers for a certain amount of money’."
The company has also taken peer-to-peer networking forward in the form of interactions on online forums, as well as face-to-face. "We’ve found that we can post on the Dscoop online forum and say ‘we’re trying to do this mailer with white ink but we can’t get it to work. Can anyone help us?’ and you’ll get an answer back with advice," says Patience.
The success of networking is not something that can necessarily be directly linked to profit margins. But Patience believes the impact on the company has still been, and will continue to be, profound.
He cites one instance, where having the chance to talk through what sort of web-to-print software to invest in was invaluable in steering the company in the right direction. "We were very close to buying a web-to-print solution from a company. We were literally just about to do it, but we went to Dscoop and there was a seminar about web-to-print and how to sell it," reports Patience. "Basically they were saying every customer will want something different, so you need to source a product that you can change and modify rather than an off-the-shelf product that does X and Y and nothing else."
"Information like that is so valuable because someone has been there, done it and come to the conclusion that what you really want is this," he adds. "Without that we would have probably gone down the route of buying what we thought, and then come unstuck further down the line."
This experience will strongly inform the way Document Options approaches all investments going forwards, says Patience. "It’s made us think about other options. It’s made us think ‘let’s not just do something because we think we should, let’s speak to people who have done it and been there’," he says.
Having peers in other companies to call upon can also be invaluable in problem-solving, and in serving clients internationally. "If your machine breaks down in the middle of a night shift and you post that on a forum, somewhere in the world there’ll be an operator looking at that and nine times out of ten they’ll be able to give you some advice," says Patience. "And there may be a scenario where a customer says ‘I’m going to a meeting abroad and I need it delivered there in time,’ and it may well be there’s a Dscoop member somewhere local with the same equipment as us who we can just send the file to."
And even where these relationships aren’t delivering such tangible assistance, just being around other passionate members of the print community is highly motivating, concludes Patience: "It just gives everyone a bit of a kick up the backside really and you all come together and think ‘let’s go for it’," he says.
"It just really energises you because you’re among good people with great ideas."
Location Crawley, West Sussex
Inspection host Dan Patience, production manager
Size £2m-£2.5m turnover, with the print arm of the business representing around half of that, and document scanning and document management services constituting the other half. The print facility employs six staff
Established 1974, originally as a microfilm and litho printing bureau
Sectors A whole range, reports Patience, including travel, marketing and medical
Products A wide range of business documents and marketing materials including high-end brochures, transactional documents and mailers; and wide-format, including POS and posters
Kit An HP Indigo 5600 and a D&K Europa automatic laminator, both bought at Drupa last year; an HP L26500 latex printer and, a recent investment, Tharstern MIS
Key dates 1998: Document Options was bought by its current managing director Richard Entecott who sold the litho side of the business to another company, but retained the digital arm. 2010; the company decided to become an HP house after ongoing problems with the quality of print produced on existing digital kit
Regular networking While many might assume networking is of most value where there’s the possibility of winning new business, Document Options has found networking with other printers to be highly worthwhile
DO IT YOURSELF
There are a wealth of networking opportunities out there besides the obvious ones of trade exhibitions. Check out the BPIF, BAPC and IPIA’s forthcoming events lists, to see if there’s a workshop or training session that will be both useful content-wise and as the backdrop for meeting other printers. Quite a few manufacturers also hold events expressly for the purpose of printer-to-printer networking, such as the EFI Connect and Kodak GUA events.
Patience says that he has, thankfully, never come across a printer using peer-to-peer networking for underhand purposes. But he advises that attending events staged by a trusted host, who has taken care to set just the right tone, should ward against any instances of job poaching. "I think Dscoop was just a very friendly open event. Everyone went away feeling refreshed that if you’re struggling there’s someone that can help you," says Patience, adding: "You just get a feeling whether someone’s genuine or not."
Top tips for success
- Don’t be afraid to go and introduce yourself if you think someone might be an interesting person to know. Patience’s experience of forging friendly links with key players in the industry shows how open even very busy people typically are to helping other switched-on types
- Get all members of staff involved. "As far as Dscoop goes, the whole company has access to the online portal so an operator can get help on a press or substrate issue, and someone at management level can discuss things like marketing ideas or different ways to lease or buy kit," says Patience. "So it works across all levels."
- Widen your definition of what might prove a good networking opportunity. Networking with people from other industries at training days or workshops might well spark some particularly innovative ideas for your business
Patience’s top tip
"Choose a networking forum that is relevant to you. There are lots of litho and flexo forums out there that are not relevant to me, whereas Dscoop is, because we’ve all got the same or similar kit, offer similar products and have similar problems. Ensuring you network with relevant people is key."
To read the full article, click here.
About the author: Venny Roper joined Haymarket in August 2011 as a features writer for PrintWeek's print edition and chips in with the occasional news story for printweek.com.