Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A mission for 150 years

We've been hearing a lot about Google's mission lately - to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

In Louisville, Kentucky, there is another organization with a very similar mission, except for a rather interesting twist. The organization is the American Printing House for the Blind and their mission is to: To promote the independence of blind and visually impaired persons by providing specialized materials, products, and services needed for education and life.

Since 1858 the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has been creating unique products for people who are visually impaired, blind, or deaf blind. APH products are designed for infants, preschoolers, students, and adults, both in education and in daily living.

In other words they are trying to organize the worlds information and make it accessible to the sight impaired. In some ways this task is easier than Google's, and in other ways, it is far, far more difficult.

This organization is a little hard to appreciate unless you go visit them. I was in Louisville today for a big status meeting (more on that later), but the more interesting part of the day was a tour of their "printing plant" and their museum. I have visited maybe 20 printing plants in my career, but I've never seen anything, and I mean not even close, to anything that resembles what I saw today.

APH generally (and lets be very liberal here, because they do lots of other products too) takes books that were published by other publishers and creates Braille and/or Large Print editions - on demand - for the sight impaired. Contractually, some of these Braille editions still need to be created on plates, and others can be done electronically. In either case, they need to be translated into Braille first before they can be printed - or I should say imprinted. Braille is essentially an embossing process for every character. Any production person I know will tell you how much embossing just a cover of a paperback book costs. Imagine every character. Each page needs to be printed individually from plates!

The plant is a strange combination of 19th century technology and 21st century technology. There are machines in that plant that I swear are more than 100 years old. All I could think about was the guy whose job it was to keep them running. There were machines in this plant that I have seen only in Antique shops. Yet they were still running, and being run by people who literally endangered their hands every second of their shift.

Then there were sheet fed machines that were were running side by side to create materials (again) one page at a time.

To appreciate this, I want you to imagine a 384 page text book with color illustrations - let's say a high school physics book. Imagine that the reader can't see any of the diagrams. The translator now needs not only to produce the textual translation, but also needs to try and literally interpret and describe the graph or picture. What an incredibly daunting task. I was told of a tragic story today of an AP Physics student who needed a Braille translation, but couldn't get it - and therefore couldn't take AP Physics - because they couldn't find a translator. It wasn't because it was going to cost $30,000 to translate that one book, it was simply that there weren't any translators available who knew physics and braille.

Now, assume that 384 page book could be translated. How many pages is that in braille? I have no idea, but I think a safe assumption would be at least 768. What an unbelievable mission!

This company labors on, under everyone's radar... since 1858.... doing what google has been doing since what? 1998?

We have had the great fortune of have APH as a client for about nine months now, and today we were able to preview the new Louis database portal (which we developed) as well as their new e-commerce site and Title Management database (again a Firebrand product), working together to help the people looking for sight impaired products - find them.

After seeing the incredible job APH has taken on for themselves, our little contribution seems like a pimple on the butt cheek of an organization with an incredible mission. To learn more about APH you can check out their website, or check out the "current" Louis database - but be aware it will be much improved probably around the beginning of next year.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Damn the Economy! Full Speed Ahead!

I've had to do a lot of soul searching recently. The economy continues to head south, and our company, Firebrand Technologies, is experiencing unprecedented growth in both client acquisition, and in revenue. But, in business, you can only grow so much before you have to invest in more infrastructure, and, (gulp) more people.

Since early in the year, I've been watching the team here at Firebrand grow more and more taxed by our recent successes. And, during that time, they have done an incredible job of taking it all in stride, and giving it everything they have. This year, in addition to our client acquisition growth, we've also developed our most ambitious new set of applications, launched two new websites, ran a user conference, and even re-branded ourselves. We've also made significant investments in both internal and external IT hardware and software.

Then the economy started to tank.

As you can see from a very recent blog post - my initial inclination was to "hunker down", bank some cash, and wait for better times before hiring new staff. But now, I see that as a recipe for disaster. We have completely maximized the capacity of our team - no matter how many tools we throw at them to make them more efficient. If we don't get some new staff, we won't be able to support (to our own service level standards) all the new clients who have come on board. This could cause a whole host of bad things to happen, including putting a serious break on our growth.

So, to parody John Paul Jones - Damn the economy! Full Speed Ahead!

We've already made one strategic hire this week (announcement to be made in about two weeks), and we're looking for people in support, QA, and development. We've got some big things happening in 2009. We can't let the economy slow those plans, its very difficult getting the positive momentum that we currently enjoy. He have to keep it moving forward!

Is anyone else out there in this position?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

We're nothing without others

I was pretty moved by Mike Hyatt's blog post yesterday - and I'm not completely sure why. What he wrote is what I "think" about all the time, and is sort of my basic life philosophy. I think that the mere fact that he wrote it all down is what made it so moving. Thanks, Mike, for doing that.

There have also been, in just that past few days, several personal examples of the just how much stronger we all are because of our strong connections with all of the people in our lives. We are all like strands in a tightly woven fabric. Whether it be my brother calling with an offer of baby clothes for my granddaughter, or my kids pitching in with the grocery shopping and dinner while my wife is away, or the people here at work who have been putting in an extraordinary effort, they all have one common theme: self sacrifice for the good of others.

As the economy becomes more challenged, this "people fabric" is going to be stretched in new and different ways. All of us are going to need to "stretch" in order to keep the fabric from ripping.

To completely mix metaphors: perhaps the silver lining in our dark economic cloud is that we might just take the time to appreciate the little things - things that maybe we've taken for granted for a while.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Hunker Down and do what you do Better!

The economy is in the tank, and the prospects of a recovery seem very far off.

Virtually every publisher, distributor, wholesaler, or retailer I've spoken to in the past month or so has been moaning about sales this year. Based on my anecdotal evidence, this could turn out to be a very difficult year for all of us.

The good news is that books have generally been considered 'recession proof' as they are a relatively low cost of entertainment. But this recession seems to have different characteristics than others I have known. It seems to be hitting consumers last instead of first. There are still stadiums full of fans often paying north of $100 a ticket to see major sporting events. It's still just as hard to get a table at your favorite restaurant. It's only the financial markets that are in a shambles. Maybe when we all get up the nerve to look at our 401(k) plans, consumers will start cutting back, and feel the pinch.

In these hard times, though, companies need to focus on net profit more than sales. Being profitable means staying alive to fight another day under better conditions. The only way to hold our profits is to hunker down and do what we do better. We all have inefficiencies in our business. We need to route these out, and save time. Efficiency reduces costs, we all know that, but in stronger economic times, we ignore that in lieu of improving our sales. It's time to start paying attention again.

Now is a good time to look at your current workflows, to examine your management practices, your list management, and obviously anything that has an impact on costs. Now is the time to look hard at the way you feed the supply chain, and especially the way you lay down new titles. (It has long been established that most titles sell more copies in their first three months than they do for the rest of their shelf life - so it's important to make those first months as smooth as possible.)

Efficiencies can be gained simply by paying attention to the little things as well. How many of you do mailings where you know your contact lists are not in good shape? How many of you don't even know if you have rights in a certain market, or e-rights to some of your best selling titles? If you were trying to make a reprint decision, how many of you really know how many copies already exist in the channel?

So, during this time of economic morass, clean house a little. When the economy comes back, you will be poised for growth!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Making a comeback

Hey all,

After more than a few subtle hints, I'm committed to re-joining the blogospheric chorus.

Tomorrow, I'll start posting real things again, but for today, I simply want to acknowledge a few of you fellow bloggers.

I not only stopped blogging a few months ago, I completely abandoned the blogosphere. So, in making a comeback, my first order of business was to try and sift through the 800+ RSS entries that I haven't read. Of course, I didn't read them all, but I was able to get a pretty good sense of things.

The most overwhelming sensation I got from this review was profound sense of respect for those of you who continue to show discipline and perserverance in your writing. Keep up the good work!

The next major feeling I got in 'sifting' through was how this 'underground media' was so much more personal and meaningful than the 'mainstream media'. Acknowledging your personal slant on things and being proud of that slant gives your work more credibility. Whether I agree with your point of view or not, I have to respect it.

Thanks to all of you for your efforts and inspiration. I especially want to thank Joe Wikert, Michael Cairns, Seth Godin, and Tim O'Reilly, whose blogs I read more than skimmed.

see you tomorrow. fpt