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Having Trouble Distinguishing Your Print Business in a Crowded Marketplace?

Be a pioneer in new markets.




BUSINESS HISTORY IS TEEMING with examples of companies that pivoted to a burgeoning new marketplace because the markets in which they used to operate were no longer worthwhile. The Kutol Company, for instance, did it twice. Founded as a soap manufacturer in the 19th century, Kutol barely survived the Great Depression by pivoting into selling wallpaper cleaner. Then, when coal heating began to be replaced en mass by oil and gas furnaces, Kutol staved off closure once again when an owner’s sister-in-law discovered that kids loved playing with the stuff. The modeling compound we now call Play-Doh was born, becoming a household name and a beloved childhood memory.

It’s a weird time for the custom printing space. If research reports are to be believed, the market is undeniably growing. But it’s a crowded space. Everybody seems to have their favorite custom printer whom they swear by – and no two are the same. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has totally upended how printers get their revenue. The move to remote and hybrid work models, for example, has made sizeable corporate swag purchases less relevant than they once were. The turbulent hospitality market, susceptible to successive lockdowns and reopenings, as well as future waves of viruses forcing people to cancel their travel plans, cannot be relied upon.

When sales have plateaued or begun to decline, finding new markets is a solid strategy to get growth back into gear. A tax firm looking for new clients might start serving crypto investors. An IoT device maker might start marketing their devices to driverless car makers, which require acoustic sensors for various applications. This kind of creative thinking about how your technology, products, or services can be valuable to buyers outside your current markets may be required for today’s custom printers who want to grow.

One of the most promising new verticals that printers should know about is the creator market. Defined as the multi-billion-dollar fueled market by 50 million online content creators, the creator market has been plagued with the problem of monetization. A major report on the subject found that just 12 percent of content creators earn more than $50,000 a year, with a full 46 percent earning less than $1000 per year. Alongside models such as advertising, sponsorships, and direct patronage, custom merchandise has emerged as an increasingly important source of funding for part- and full-time content creators. Custom merch enables creators to provide a new source of value to fans in the form of fashion or personal expression – and they can charge actual money for it.  

Existing custom printers are perfectly positioned to serve this emerging market. They have the technology and the experience to provide quality results to delight fans. Unfortunately, catering to creators is not as simple as having professional printing equipment and partnerships with quality textiles and other merch vendors. Content creators are not necessarily experts in graphic design, marketing, business, or logistics, and may not have the skill sets to assemble the various components required to set up an online store. 

As always, when entering new markets, you must not just think about what your business’s capabilities are, but also what potential customer needs will be. An all-in-one, packaged solution that takes care of the design, ecommerce, fulfillment, and yes, printing components of online custom merch sales is far more likely to appeal to this market than just telling creators you have print capabilities. Another value-add custom printers can provide is their knowledge of the culture and the business of merch. With trends being so important in the merch space and graphic design more generally, the ability to advise creators on their designs or even create custom designs proven by data to sell well could be a powerful value proposition to this market.


For more general wisdom on entering new markets, I recommend this groundbreaking piece from Harvard Business Review on new market strategy. Based on hundreds of interviews with new market pioneers, the authors discovered certain commonalities in the strategy that successful new market entries share. As someone who has helped guide businesses into new markets on several occasions, I found particularly relevant the principle that you should “test relentlessly – but then commit.” I’ve seen many companies try to capture every new trend as it emerges. This approach is doomed to failure in a new market where everything is by nature in flux. A business needs a strong focus to make it in a new market. Much like investing, if you truly believe in the product, then stick to your bet, and go long.

The creator economy is just one example of a market where printers may be able to plant a flag, of course. Creating a solution for this creator market may not necessarily be the right choice for every print business. Printer business leaders will need to sit down, do their research, and think creatively in order to identify opportunities for growth through new markets.



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