A few months ago, VT ran an advertisement from a mergers and acquisition company encouraging operators to sell their businesses before it was too late. The message in the ad was to get out while you can, while your business still has value. Initially, I was hesitant to accept this type of ad because I thought it might promote more uncertainty in our industry during a time when so many of us are trying to be strong. But then I realized that we all have different reasons for running a business, and the choices we make are specific to each of us. So a quick, profitable exit, while not the answer for me, might be the right decision for some business owners.
I've always believed that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. (Actually, the tough go shopping, but these are unusual times -- even for shopaholics!) On a serious note, what I find most disturbing is the inability to make projections, because not even economists can predict when we will emerge from this recession. Of course, their past record of successful forecasts is not especially good; but the fact remains that the present situation seems different, and no one can say exactly why or how. But it makes planning uniquely difficult, this time around.
Whatever the difference may be, it is disconcerting to many businesses, including the two that I care most about: the coin-op industry and business news media. More than ever, I am asked whether I believe in the future of vending -- and whether I believe that print publications have a role to play in a "digital" world.
You will have guessed that my answer to both questions is a resounding YES! But even in my unbounded optimism, I know that those of us who have decided to stick it out and go the distance must make important decisions, and that what we do now will determine our destinies. I only wish we had all the information we needed to make those decisions -- but then, no one ever has been able to predict the future. I am constantly reminded by my older more experienced colleagues (you know who you are) that every period of economic weakness has been regarded as threatening in unprecedented new ways. And, I have also observed that certain principles seem to always apply when surviving such challenging times.
I believe that staying the course during periods of uncertainty has much to do with the owner's attitude, or at least his or her public expression of it. In my opinion, a small business owner who resolves to face adverse conditions by fighting to survive should enlist the assistance of his or her employees. Once you recognize that a difficulty has become a danger to the company's survival, I think you should explain the situation to everyone affected by it. Chances are that they already suspect that all is not well, and nothing is to be gained by the owner's pretending otherwise. You may be surprised at the cooperation you can get.
The awareness of impending risk can encourage people to accept new ways of doing things, and then to try their best to make those innovations work. For the past three decades, the ongoing conversation about new methods and technologies has noted that, when things are going smoothly, management tends to settle into a rut. Employees, too, become complacent ... especially when jobs are easy to find. But management and staff often find that things they had regarded as distractions -- expanding into coffee service or small-site vending, changing from paper-based route tickets to handheld computers, moving to dynamic scheduling -- seem a lot more attractive when business turns down.
I think it's also valuable to be straightforward with customers and suppliers, for the same reasons. The firms you deal with that appreciate your service and that value your business know that times are hard; they almost certainly are having their own difficulties, too. This sense that "we're all in this together" can create a new willingness to listen to reasonable suggestions.
Vending and print publishing don't seem to have a lot in common, but there are some similarities. Both bring something to market that is not absolutely essential, but that is in demand because it offers benefits that cannot easily be matched by anything else. And, unfortunately, both tend to be regarded as low-cost delivery methods, when they are nothing of the sort.
Both industries bear much of the blame for this incorrect perception. Too many vendors have competed on the basis of high commissions and low prices. Too many publishers have offered unsustainably low advertising rates. And both confront the dilemmas that result from serving two groups of customers -- location personnel and location management; readers and advertisers -- whose desires often are different. The challenge is to convince the decision-making clients that, whatever their desires may be, their needs ultimately are the same as our consumers' are.
Vending, at least, is still regarded as an attractive amenity; the problem for the industry is to find a way to deliver it profitably in an environment in which high-traffic locations have become hard to find. The problem for publishing is to change the curious contemporary view that the print medium is, somehow, obsolescent in a digital age. On the contrary, print and digital information delivery systems actually complement one another; neither is as effective by itself.
I think both of these problems can be addressed, and the way to start is for us to understand the value of what we offer. The question of vendors having a less positive view of their offerings than most of their patrons do is a recurrent topic in the industry. As for print: If I told you that I had a revolutionary new medium that can store and present more than 150 megabytes of text and high-resolution full-color graphics, with random access, in a lightweight package that requires no batteries, you probably would sit up and take notice. When I added that this medium can be folded or rolled up, withstands sand, spray and spilled coffee with minimum degradation, is easy to mark up and annotate, and will be fully legible a quarter of a century from now if it's stored with minimal care, I think you would regard it as a good candidate for the Next Big Thing. And when you learned that it could be produced and delivered to the end-user at a unit cost of under $2, so the replacement cost is negligible in the event of loss or fatal damage, I believe you would be convinced. I'd bet you never thought about print this way before! This is the point that, in my view, the newspapers and magazines should be emphasizing. It is just too bad that they aren't doing it.
In the end, the market decides whether any commercial enterprise succeeds or fails. This has led to the belief that the only important questions are financial. Some decades back, when certificates of deposit yielded high interest and vending was going through one of its periodic spells of unprofitability, experts told industry audiences that, if you were getting less return on your investment in a vending business than you could get from CDs, it made no sense to work much harder for less return.
But those experts forgot one thing: entrepreneurs enjoy what they do, and their enterprises have developed distinct identities. They have also become essential to a number of people for varied reasons. And equally important, they are fun, and they are worth fighting for. Those of us who have decided to stay the course realize that success is the reward, and it is not always measured in dollars.