The Dangers of the Innovation Desert in the Office Equipment World

I’m going to start by saying that the office equipment channel has an innovation problem. We’re in a rut, we’re doing the same things and expecting different results and it’s hurting our bottom lines. Today I’d like to talk about the following:

  • The glory days of innovation
  • The desert of innovation today (and how we got here!)
  • Building a future where innovation matters again

The glory days of innovation

Remember when the office equipment and imaging channels were buzzing with innovation and business growth? In the early days of managed print when I started my career in office imaging, innovation was everywhere. Companies were creating software to monitor and manage disparate fleets of printers and MFDs. Standalone copiers were passé and networked MFDs became the norm. Scanning technology went from mere “copy” to scanning and routing in full color and high resolution. Solutions were created to help manage user workflows, to use rules to make printing more cost-effective and efficient. Office print and copy was exciting, and we were growing like crazy.

Fast forward to today: The big news of the day is the acquisition frenzy and industry consolidation. Dealer after dealer is being acquired and integrated into one of a handful of “megadealers.” Software providers have been consolidating as well, and innovation on that front is practically mute. MFDs look pretty much like they did 10 years ago. We’ve also seen some efforts to innovate that are impractical and without business sense.

So how did we get here?

The desert of innovation today

Success

The office equipment channel has been one full of success. The number of dealers I know that have grown over the years from $1M to $30M to $150M plus per year is staggering. When the model is working, when companies are growing, why innovate? Well, those days are gone as the move to a megadealer economy clearly illustrates. The problem with success is it makes us comfortable, and we are so very, very comfortable. Or are we? Is our new business model simply selling to a megadealer?

Resistance to innovation

The industry has had lots of new things come forward that could drive revenues and margins up. SBB (Seat Based Billing), DBB (Device Based Billing) and other flat rate models are incredible ways to reinvigorate a channel rife with low margins and consolidation. Even with CPP margins on a continual race to the bottom, we hold on.

Another example is getting rid of the need for service. Service-less printers, ink-based technologies, we’ve seen them come. And we’ve resisted because it would make our service departments (and revenue) irrelevant. Innovations that are better for the customer but will force us to reimagine our business models are not welcome.

Uncertainty

People are printing fewer pages. Many dealers are at retirement age with no clear business ascension plan. Megadealers are further driving down cost and making it harder to compete. The office equipment channel is under pressure to become something different, but nobody seems to agree on what that is. Adding additional services like managed IT? Or VoIP? Or sticking just to print? Uncertainty abounds.

Building a future where innovation matters again

The good news: For those with a thirst to grow their businesses, the opportunities are incredible! We are once again on the verge of an incredible time of innovation if we’re willing to see, and more importantly, ACT on the innovations right in front of us.

So how do we do that? Here are some simple ideas to drive a new age of business innovation in the office equipment channel.

  • Redefine “office equipment”: Why does office equipment have to be just printers and MFDs? Why don’t we look at PCs, servers and VoIP equipment as office equipment? We need to expand our view of what office equipment is if we’re to grow. Only then can we begin to seriously diversify and grow our businesses. An office is about getting work done, and paper output is only a small part of that. It’s time to go after it all.
  • Refresh current systems: I can almost guarantee that everybody reading this is no longer using a pager for texting, Eudora for email or WordPerfect for writing. So why are we so hell-bent on using legacy systems to manage our businesses? I speak to business owners all the time who say they feel restrained by their current systems, “but what choice do I have?” The answer: Plenty! There are a host of new applications and solutions out there that will move your business into the future. Accepting current systems with an air of defeat simply isn’t fair to you or your business.
  • Make learning a thing again: Go to events that are NOT print-related. At least get some first-hand introductions to new things you could be doing to grow your business. I’m a big fan of CompTIA events for my outside-the-box learning activities. Give it a go yourself! If the only events we attend have to do with our current business model, we’ll never have the chance to make educated decisions about how we should innovate.
  • Network with innovators: There are a host of folks in our industry who make it their mission to help businesses to grow and transform. By having conversations about innovation with peers who care about it, well, you’re going to naturally become more innovative. We are a product of our environment and surrounding ourselves with innovators will help us all to become innovators ourselves.

Are you ready to push beyond the status quo? Are you at least curious enough to start the conversation? Feel free to reach out to me and let’s see if we can’t help each other to be more inspired, to drive the future and to grow our businesses into the future.

West McDonald

West McDonald

West McDonald is VP of Business Development, Tigerpaw Software.