Technology changes at lightning speed. For some tech business owners, these changes can be intimidating. Not for Jerry Feil. While advances like computer graphics and PowerPoint made his earlier business plans obsolete, ultimately he exploited these developments to position himself on the leading edge.
His secret? With each advancement, look for the new, unfilled niche it creates. In the last 36 years, Feil has constantly adjusted his printing business, Graphicsland, on this principle. His willingness to use new technology to improve his business has served him well. Eleven years ago, Graphicsland had four employees and $250,000 in annual revenue; today, it has 20 employees and $2.8 million in revenue.
Adopting new technology to meet changing needs
When Feil started Graphicsland as a college student in 1974, he used new computer technology to develop electronic corporate training materials. But in the 1980s, when computer graphics became more accessible, allowing consumers to create their own presentations, Feil shifted gears to production: Clients would send their own presentation graphics and Graphicsland would print them on 35-millimeter slides.
In the late 1990s, he had to shift again: The advent of PowerPoint enabled companies to create their own slideshows, effectively eliminating the need for 35-millimeter slides. For a while, Feil was perplexed about his next step. "You scratch your head and watch business dropping, and you wonder what to do next," he says.
Other businesses using the service bureau model had shifted their attention to printing signs and collateral for ad agencies, where there was steady business. But Feil found ad agencies difficult to work with; he wanted to continue to work with "regular" people, not just big companies. Feil brainstormed how he could use the same technology -- large-scale printing from user-produced graphics -- for individual consumers. The result: Makestickers.com and Makesigns.com.
Using technology to better serve customers
The idea for Makestickers.com and Makesigns.com is the same: Graphicslands provides an online template that allows customers to easily design a product. Customers can create signs at Makesigns.com, and bumper stickers at Makestickers.com. Graphicsland, which operates both websites, prints and ships the products.
Both websites were profitable starting when Feil launched them in 2000. But Feil wasn't satisfied with their moderate profit margins. He knew that in order to increase profits dramatically, he would have to seek new ways to serve customers.
A few years in, Feil noticed that about 10 percent of his sign customers were medical students who needed scientific posters. He found that this group, while well educated, had a hard time understanding the poster processing system, such as the dimensions needed in a PowerPoint slide to create a certain size poster.
Looking to boost the size of this customer base, Graphicsland created an online tutorial that helps customers create the kind of files they need. They also created a drop-down menu that automatically gives poster options based on the size of the file uploaded. Feil says these services created a better product and decreased calls to customer service.
Feil also noticed that medical students often wait until the last minute to create their posters and need them on a very short turnaround. He cut down shipping delays by creating an internal shipment processing system, developing software to verify the validity of addresses before they shipped. What's more, if his system anticipates a delay in delivery, the company calls the customer, offering to create a new poster at no charge and overnight it to the location.
"This costs us, but it really wows our customers," says Feil. "If one person has his poster at a conference and his friend doesn't because of a delay, that's a great advertisement for us."
Today, printing scientific posters accounts for 32 percent of Graphicsland's business -- and it continues to grow.
Hit or Miss
Feil believes he has stayed in business this long by staying open to changing customer needs. "When a customer expresses an interest, it's stupid not to explore the potential," he says. But that willingness to explore new potential areas has sometimes led to dead ends.
At one point, he developed software that allowed customers to download files via fax -- only to have the technology made obsolete by the internet shortly thereafter. Early in business, he also developed a way for customers to create slides in Word Perfect -- only to have Microsoft Word come along six months later, making that functionality obsolete.
For Feil, success follows most efforts that loop back to a company's core competencies. "Serve the customer right now the best you can," he says, "but always have an eye out for opportunities to take your core competencies and extrapolate going forward."
Feil is still looking for the next unfilled gap that technology could fill. He sees an opening in printing signs for independently operated grocery stores, which often hand-paint signs on butcher paper. One thing is for sure: He will keep looking for that next opportunity, and change his business accordingly.