No matter how obscure our tastes, almost anything we have a yen for is a mere Google search or eBay bid away. For good or bad, the same holds for business owners: everyone, it seems, uses the Internet as an avenue for free promotion and advertising opportunities. As a result, any business hoping to thrive must venture into digital services and online business.
Obviously, e-commerce opportunities have advantages and disadvantages. Change can be daunting, especially when it means investing in training for employees in order to service clients. The investment in technology alone can be cost-prohibitive, too. In the race to outwit stiff competition and stay relevant, companies aren’t only carving out niches for consumers, they’re making it easier for manufacturers and resellers to do the same. Both Bowling Green, Ohio-based Century Marketing and PageDNA in Redwood City, Calif., have tapped into their traditional professional strengths to creatively capitalize on the electronic marketplace.
Century Marketing, which currently offers an interface for resellers to offer online design capabilities for label orders, began developing Profit Making Technology (PMT) in April 2004. “We started in the ’80s, selling door-to-door custom labels and packaging to independent retailers,” Robert Petrie, vice president of wholesale markets, explained. “We identified, in the 1990s, [that] many distributors would not pursue short-run, custom label business because of the confusion, complexity and time required to design and order labels for the amount of revenue they would receive.”
PMT’s design tool, which appears as a component of a client’s Web site, can be customized to achieve the look and feel of individual resellers’ Web sites, Petrie noted. PMT offers two different programs to its clients: an affiliate program and a distributor program. The affiliate program allows clients to “link the current program and products, that we have ... right on to our Web site. So if you were an affiliate, you could sign up today, have a button on your Web site tomorrow that would say ‘custom labels and tags,’ we could design that button any way you want it, and you could have a full program of short-run custom labels on your site with the look and feel of your site.” The distributor program is more complex, allowing clients to custom-design their site, making labels and tags available to resellers’ customers to create. Petrie added, “[Distributors] can pick and choose their products and pricing. Their credit card transaction goes directly to their merchant gateway account—we never even see it. So, [clients] can actually book the sale and have much more ability to customize this to fit their business needs.” Both programs utilize PMT’s specialties, including the ability to convert uploaded low-resolution art into high-resolution art and movable curved text capabilities that allow customers to alter the curve on the text.
Doug Ballinger, president of PageDNA (which stands for Page Dynamic Network Application), previously owned Metanet, a Palo Alto, California-based prepress business.
PageDNA was born from Ballinger’s experience in the ’90s creating graphic arts solutions software, and the idea that laid the groundwork for his current venture—an ordering system developed for Wells Fargo. He founded the company with Tony Lownds, CTO, and Steve Enstad, vice president of sales.
Ingenuity was the mother of invention. As the group began to acquire software solutions projects for companies like Adobe Systems, they encountered a number of obstacles in typesetting. As a result, PageDNA developed its own custom software to handle the complexity of typesetting obstacles it faced. Now, Ballinger said, one of the company’s signature characteristics is the facility with which it can handle typesetting.
Adapting to troubleshooting and efficiency led to a change of focus. “Early on,” Ballinger explained, “our biggest challenge was finding a graphic arts application that could be deployed in hundreds or thousands of instances without the challenges of extensive design and workflow customization that we had encountered with some of the applications we were developing.” When PageDNA embarked on a Web site development project for Netscape, the company faced a host of complexities unique to the ever-changing project. “In the early days, I likened a lot of our software development to ‘custom kitchen remodeling’—that is, build it once and hope ... that some of the experience would
payoff on the next job.”
Despite their successes, Ballinger began to realize many of the custom projects the group was taking on were outside the realm of software development. “I felt that many of our custom assignments ... were more the purview of companies ... like ad agencies and Web shops than a pure software developer like us. We finally sat down one day and decided not to do ‘custom kitchen remodeling’ and focus on doing one thing really well. Back then, we called it business card ordering systems. That application has evolved into a comprehensive Web-to-print
PageDNA is now a top-to-bottom online business catalog application, which includes ordering, production, inventory, printing and shipping. Once a print manufacturer or distributor signs up for PageDNA capabilities, he or she is given a hub for training and site development.
“We get into other areas that many may not associate with Web-to-print,” Ballinger stated. “We keep track of inventory, we show warehouse locations on pick tickets, we send shipping notification e-mails [and] we integrate with all kinds of business and MIS systems ... . On the production side, we have a full imposition engine that can create press-ready plates optimized to fit as many orders as possible onto as few plates as possible, mathematically.”
In the end, giving customers a feeling of control is top priority. It’s also what makes these kinds of services challenging to keep technologically sound, successful and user-friendly. Petrie commented, “People love to have control—especially the younger generation ... and they don’t want to be put in a box. And, if we could keep them in a box, this project would have been a lot easier. But, we really wanted to give them the ability and the environment to really customize the whole area of the image and do some neat things, and make it easy, too.”
Ballinger said, “The most significant victory for our company has been the ongoing realization that we can sign up dozens of accounts a month, train them on how to use our product to become self-reliant, and then let them take their destiny into their own hands.” The sense of control a customer feels is advantageous to the company offering customization, too. Ballinger noted the amount of time it gives PageDNA to focus on its products and services.
Not only do both tools allow clients to feel simultaneously self-sufficient and not deserted in cyberspace, they have both streamlined workflow. With so much of the process in the clients’ hands, the time-consuming approval process is made more efficient. Because the client is entering information directly into the application, PMT has eliminated the step of submitting proofs to their clients, while PageDNA provides a file for approval.
But, if workflow is streamlined in other areas, what about time and energy spent learning new technology, not to mention staffing businesses with tech-savvy employees? Companies engaging in service-oriented e-commerce employ troubleshooting support. In fact, PMT offers a phone number and e-mail address so resellers’ customers can speak with someone well-versed in the software who can guide them through problems.
With these types of complex customizations come equally complex hurdles in development. “Funding software development without venture capital or outside investors is always a big challenge,” admitted Ballinger. “I wrote a lot of checks in the early days without much to show for it and frankly, we hit a point where I was reluctant to invest any more into the venture.” In the end, PageDNA pulled through, garnering two high-profile deals—one with a manufacturer who needed online ordering to break business, and another with a dot-com.
“We went with a platform we knew was going to limit us in the future for flexibility,” Petrie said of PMT, “and we just had to make the hard decision to start over, and [that] was after we had about 18 months and [were] a couple hundred thousand into it ... We were able to meet our objectives with the new PMT version. It was a very painful, hard decision, but it work[ed] out to be a very good [one].”
No matter how one manages to wrangle new sales out of an industry fraught with fast-paced change, there are countless ways to view e-commerce positively. All one has to do is take a deep breath, close one’s eyes and Google.