Greg Salzman discusses print’s transitional future
Aleyant has rehired Greg Salzman as CEO. Greg founded Aleyant and developed the suite of applications focusing on the print manufacturing sector. It seems that rehiring a CEO can work out well. Apple did it with Steve Jobs. Starbucks has Howard Shultz on his third tour of duty.
INKISH caught up with Greg just hours after the official announcement came out. The interview is as revealing about the past as it is about the future.
Robert Godwin: We're here with Greg Salzman, the newly returning CEO, to Aleyant (ah-lay-ent), a software company that concentrates in the print space. Greg is going to tell us some interesting stories about how and why this came about. Greg, I'm interested to learn what drove you to go backwards. And I don't mean backwards like it's bad, more like backwards to revisit something. There's a saying : “You can't go home again”* and that's because obviously things have changed. And so, things have changed in the time period that you spent developing the BrandWings portal.
Greg: Right, right.
Robert: I'm going to setup the premise of this interview- I see a lot of synergies. Between what we talked about, I think was in September, about BrandWings and where you were going with it and how it would fit many needs you learned about in your first tenure with Aleyant. Actually, it would fit neatly with the current offerings from Aleyant. The synergies would only make sense and appeal, at some point, for printers with the vision of creating those deeper relationships with the kind of clients that they would want to serve. That's my understanding of it. How did you end up accepting this position to go back to your beginnings?
Greg: Sure, so you know it's interesting you said backwards, right? Because that was really forefront in my mind through the decision-making processes. You know, am I trying to go backwards? Am I trying to go home? But that is not really how I'm wired. I've kind of always been a forward-looking person who, you know, wants to see things happen. But I think it was really kind of a serendipitous convergence of scenarios. So first of all, I'll just talk about the BrandWing side.
I don't know if you've ever been part of a startup, Robert, but there are some critical phases that it goes through. I got the company started and really got the product to an MVP** status, to the point where we weren't losing deals based on lack of features. That's a good way to verify the status, you know, and we could see that.
Certainly, there's a million ways to improve the product as we look towards an increasingly sophisticated and more enterprise (level) customer base. They would certainly want more, but the reality is that I got the product to a point where I believe it's superior to others within its category and target market.
I also built a dev team around it right so there's some talented developers. I think one of the biggest differences between starting BrandWings and starting Aleyant is I did not want to go it alone.
There was some very lonely days starting Aleyant in the beginning and part of it's not having money. Yeah, I mean, I started that on a shoestring. Actually, I did it on $6000 and never took investment beyond that. That was all I had, right? So, you make it work, but obviously I had a bit more resources available to me for BrandWings and I just decided I did not want that lonely experience.
Also, I was at the point where I wanted to take a step back and just be able to focus on development and product. So, I brought on Jason Kammes from Fujifilm (to Brandwings)as a partner. I don't know if you've ever met Jason in your travels. He's a great guy. Spent 20 years at Fujifilm, was kind of looking for something new, so the timing worked out and he joined BrandWings.
The good news is Jason is to the point where he's bringing in customers and getting them on-boarded and supporting them with the help of the dev team. From a product perspective, obviously you need to build your MVP, but there's a certain point where you risk building a product within your ivory tower, right? In product development, at a certain point after you hit the MVP, new development needs to be within the context of constant customer feedback.
Greg: So, the reality is, I started to find myself with time on my hands and I can only do so much woodworking, Robert, Ha Ha!
Robert: We're going to have to see some samples of your work.
Greg: Yeah, hey I just got my 3rd Etsy sale the other day, so.
Robert: You are so Entrepreneurial, I love this.
Greg: Couldn't just be a hobby, could it? I had to monetize it.
Robert: This is fantastic. You’re right, it couldn't. It's a spirit.
Greg: I think what changed on the Lumine*** side which really caught my interest is that they have a very strategic approach to acquired growth and organic growth. From an acquisitions perspective, obviously the target needs to be a solid business. The fundamentals of the business need to be there. But they are creative with their approach which creates interesting opportunities. I think that it puts Aleyant in a great position to be able to go out and explore some key acquisitions to expand the product portfolio.
I think when you look at other companies that have been aggressive about expanding their product portfolios, they haven't been strategic. They took a “Let's just grab some” approach and just acquired some assets. They provided minimal support, and they barely integrated the products.
Robert: Are you going to mention anybody in specific, you know, because you just described about four companies that I can think of off the top of my head?
Greg: Oh, you know, I won't say their name, but their initials are [REDACTED].
Greg: What we (have been) seeing in the print industry is that automation was becoming increasingly important before COVID. And automation, I think is really the number one issue for the printing companies that are going to thrive in this post COVID era.
Robert: There's a lot of talk, it's a huge topic.
Greg: Lots of different aspects, but I would say that well integrated software solutions where data is flowing as seamlessly as possible between the various software solutions that printing companies have within their shop.
Those are the ones that are going to make it right because it's kind of basic economics, right? You have less people involved. You have more timely data available in different systems. You have fewer errors happening, right?
And so, you can do more with less.
You can turn around jobs faster, or you're going to reduce problems that cause you to reprint or problems that cause you to delay shipments, et cetera. So, to me, what's exciting is that vision of being able to, through internal efforts and through acquisitions, build a software company and evolving to the point where it's going to be able to really meet a majority of the software needs that a printing company has.
Robert: Right and you brought up several interesting points. I want to recap on a couple of them. You mentioned about the MVP, which I think is critical for most developers to understand is they over develop, and I've worked for a couple of companies where because it was driven by developers or the developers had the ears of the money people and just said, well we need to do this and we need to do this and we need to do this. And we need to re-code in this new language that's available because it's this or that and you know a variety of that is every development shop.
Greg: Yeah, yeah. I have. Though there's a lot of good things about agile development.
Robert: There are some things about agile development that allow a lot of spec creep. Especially true for homegrown code that became productized.
Greg: I think agile’s important, Robert. I think the bigger thing that we'll end up looking for which indirectly validates what you're talking about is if a company has a good active customer base; are they making new sales; are people sticking with the product rather than leaving?
I'm more looking to make sure that the marketplace is validating the product and therefore the company, right? I feel like if we find companies where they have customers that love them, we can, over time, update development methodologies. But if you're not following what your customers are asking for, then why bother?
I'm more interested if they have passionate customers. Do the customers say “Man! This, this tool has changed my business and I'm going to stick with them and maybe even tell my friends about them”
That that's the bigger driver than their development methodology.
Greg: What's been interesting for me the last two years I've been kind of a passive observer of the print industry. There’re some benefits from that distant viewpoint. I think last two years I just wasn't as invested in the idea that you've got to drive more ink on paper. I think I could take a step back and just observe where is this actually headed, and you know what? What happened is I get calls from former customers.
“I haven't talked to you awhile and, hey here's what's going on my business.”
It's kind of interesting to be able to have the opportunity to engage in those conversations where at the time I didn't really have, oh, what's the phrase, “A horse in the race”? It’s just that I was able to talk about it without needing to find an angle to land a sale, right?
And I think that what I'm seeing is there's just a ton of structural changes that are happening within the print history that will keep us very busy for a while.
OK, so I think there's a short term which is still measured in years. We just need to build in more automation. I think you know we saw this before, but even more so, printers are saying “I really should only be printing what I'm going to be profitable in and what I'm really good at. And then I just need to outsource everything else, right?
So, I think there's a greater willingness to outsource. They're realizing their value. The value is the relationships they have with their customers, not just the big hunks of iron that they have in the production area.
The smarter ones are realizing this.
That is sacrilege but I'm hearing it more.
Robert: But it's still sacrilege for a lot of them, because buying iron looks like commitment, even if the beast can’t be fed enough work.
Greg: I think the other, the other interesting trend is it's amazing how much of print is driven by marketing at their client organizations, and you know, marketing, and we talked about this, marketing budgets get spent on multiple things, right?
It gets spent on a lot of digital options and it also gets spent on print. And printers have been very focused on saying, well, hey print is really the best marketing option.
You should spend your money on it, and I think print is compelling. But maybe I think this may have been part of your angle earlier, asking about Brand Wings’ value role for a printer’s client.
Yeah, I think that printers need to have more digital options available to their clients, so an example is that I got a call from a former, well, he's a customer again, but he was a former customer and he said, I have this Pressero site, and they can come and order stuff.
Pressero has some asset management capabilities built in, so the customer explains, ” I put all their company assets in there and now the entire company is going in and they're getting and using my Pressero site for getting assets. But they're not all ordering print!”
He’s upset and feeling that he's done a disservice to himself. So, I asked,
“Well, are you charging them for access to this digital asset repository that you have carefully curated for them?”
“No, no, I'm not.”
“Well, you should be.”
Robert: Yeah, absolutely right.
Greg: And so, I think the part of the challenge is to pursue printers who already provide some digital transformation options, not to monetize digital transformation, but to just get their foot in the door to get more work to keep their machines busy. And so, I think that's one of the other things.
Robert: No, no, no, no, let's stop. That's huge.
“To keep my machines busy.”
This goes back to your comment on the iron on the floor, in other words, the value that can be added is pretty simple. That value essentially is servicing their (the PSP’s customer) needs for all those different areas are used.
As you said, the budget, you used a phrase, that printers say print is the “best option for your marketing.” They don't have to say they have the best option. It's an option for your marketing, and we have all these other options for you because we house all of your assets, and we can channel it into those into those marketing arenas as you need to. That's his business opportunity!
Again I'm, I'm editorializing.
These are the things that are starting to happen as new management, younger blood, is coming into the industry. They're not resistant to hearing all of these things; and the iron on the floor as you said, keep my business, keep my machines running. You use something like cloud printer or Gelato or HH Global. As you said earlier, using outsourcing options. What you have to do is feed it into that network of over capacity and get the best price at the quality levels that you require in the geographic specific location that you're serving.
These are the models that are evolving and being used, so technology now becomes king as opposed to manufacturing, being king and I think that's pretty much where you're playing.
Greg: Yeah, yeah, I think so. So, you know what that exactly looks like, Robert? You know there's some open questions there. You can appreciate this, right?
Robert: You know, yeah.
Greg: Sometimes it feels the most vocal customers are asking for the most obscure features to be added into Pressero to service that one customer that has that one job that comes in every three years.
Obviously Pressero needs to support the daily business operations of our customers. But instead of always just going deeper, deeper, and deeper into the feature list, how do we kind of expand the options to help our customers be more strategic, given what the future looks like?
I’m excited to explore this in the coming months.
* You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe
** MVP- Minimum Viable Product
*** Luminegroup, subsidiary of Volarisgroup- Company that owns Aleyant