Michael Cairns, CEO of Publishing Technology plc, shares his views on how to grow a business, secure contracts and win new clients when a company’s core industry is in transition.
Growing a business rapidly is difficult enough under normal business conditions but when a company’s target sector is undergoing fundamental change and transition then it is even more challenging.
Publishing Technology plc, an Oxford-based growth business and one of the leading suppliers of end-to-end software and services to the global publishing industry whose clients include seven of the top ten international publishing groups, has experienced a radical transformation recently due to the digitalisation wave sweeping the sector.
Capitalise on breakpoints
Sectors gripped by radical change are often in a state of flux and uncertainty. Companies need to assess what strategy is best, what new technologies to adopt to survive. Instead of seeing this as a threat, suppliers should see it as an opportunity. Management textbooks, such as US academic Paul Strebel’s ‘How Managers Exploit Radical Business Change’, call these periods ‘breakpoints’.
Key actions to capitalise on these periods of opportunity are, firstly, to invest in research that will allow you to anticipate the change as much as possible; secondly, don’t try and reorganise your whole business to adapt, just the crucial operations that are most aligned to the changes; and, thirdly, to target an implementation point as early as possible in the cycle of change.
For example, we identified early on that digitalisation would sweep the publishing sector and knew that companies would need software to help them to adapt. So we developed our pub2web platform, a solution that supports and delivers all the information that publishers need to make available online, regardless of content type or format.
Demonstrate thought leadership
Even if you are a long-term supplier, if sector change is radical then that could actually count against you as clients seek new partners who they may believe can better match their radically different needs. Try and convince them otherwise by using thought leadership initiatives, reports and research projects to position yourself as an authority on the new industry trends.
For instance, our sales and marketing consulting business unit, PCG, publishes an annual report on academic library buying habits, and we recently released a report on the revolution in reading behaviour brought on by mobile devices, which helped us to reassure our publishing clients that we were on top of this trend. We also ensure our senior managers are very visible at industry-leading events, such as the Frankfurt, London and Beijing Book Fairs, speaking about groundbreaking industry trends and initiatives.
Move faster than the competition
Radical change is, almost by definition, rapid change, so the winners in this competition are those who adapt fastest. As a growth business, make the most of your smaller size and greater flexibility to move more quickly than larger rival suppliers.
So how do you make your company as agile as possible? Increasingly businesses are borrowing from the software development industry, which has developed a specific set of techniques known as ‘agile methods’ to address the problems of rapidly-evolving requirements and faster-moving business change.
The key stipulations are to put in place a non-hierarchical structure to allow individuals the maximum autonomy to be creative and, given the very fast pace of business change today, pursuing a series of temporary competitive advantages – capitalising for a time on the strength of an idea, product, or service then discarding it swiftly and developing a more appropriate solution, to keep pace with market trends and developments.
Don’t discard older products too soon
Agility and flexibility should not mean that you immediately discard your old products. Even if business change can today be swift, with most companies there is desire to transition rather than completely switch to new services or products. Our Vista product has been powering the fulfilment needs of publishers for over three decades and generates a significant portion of our revenues. It still has a loyal client base, though we see more and more of our clients moving to our new generation advance product, which handles a variety of data processes, such as production, sales and marketing and fulfilment functions for clients.
And don’t shy away from investing in new products
The complexity of business change, and the key role technology typically plays in that, means that developing new products and services will usually require significant R&D investment. Tips for successful R&D investing include ensuring that you have project champions for the new products, making sure that it is development not simple research that you are funding, and introducing the implementation team early to ensure that what is being developed can be used in practice.
We have invested over £17 million over the last few years on our next-generation products, pub2web and advance, and these R&D essentials have been critical to their success.
Follow your clients
With sweeping globalisation, technology and online commerce all breaking down geographic boundaries, change today often involves businesses seeking to expand into new markets as this is easier to achieve. It is therefore imperative that suppliers follow their clients in this regard or risk being supplanted by rivals who will. As the publishing industry has gone global, we have followed in suit by extending our reach by having a presence in in Australia, India, China and Brazil.
Partner with local experts
Expanding abroad, particularly in emerging markets, can be challenging, with unfamiliar business practices and cultures being just a few of the points to master. If these issues are proving intractable, then joining a local partner with expert knowledge makes sense. For instance, our JV partner in China is academic and publishing expert Helen Sun, who has an extensive knowledge of the national and international publishing community and unrivalled contacts which are vital for success. With her help, our clients now include China Publishing Group, the country’s main publisher and owner of CNPIEC which controls the majority of content moving in and out of China; China Law Press; and the Zhonghuq Book Company, one of the country’s oldest publishers.
The bottom line is that though radical change among clients can be daunting, with the right preparation, approach and strategy it can be mastered and even be beneficial.