Saturday, May 14, 2005

Remote partnering

There are many ways to solve problems. Physical proximity is not necessarily a requisite piece of the solution.

When we first started Banner Graphics our technology limited us to production of graphics that could only be used indoors. This was a big piece of the market, but adding the capability to offer work that could be used outdoors was also valuable. Often, one customer had both needs. The biz was growing nicely and we were always busy, but we were looking for sustainable ways to grow.

In between jobs, we tested changes to ink chemistries and fooled around with different substrates and overlays.

But we kept coming back to the fact that we WERE always busy and finding a fix was taking too much time away from our day job. So we set up our first remote partner. We visited with a local firm doing high volume laminating and learned from each other what kind of problems could be solved if we worked together. Ultimately we decided to make their capabilities part of our business model, and they made our services part of theirs.

Yes, outsourcing. Well, sorta. We weren't eliminating jobs, we were trying to grow our own jobs into something even cooler. Initially we took graphics there once every week or so. Within a couple of years, we'd moved next door. Within a year or two after that, a near continuous stream of graphics flowed out the back door of our shop, into theirs and back to us as finished product.

The core component of this little dance was data control. Knowing where everything was all the time and when it should be somewhere else. By starting early with this vendor, we both were able to work up data management strategies specific to the process. Even at high volumes (that neither firm expected at the start of the relationship) the process was easy and profitable for both because we'd thought it through at the beginning. Neither company's core business was hurt by intrusive production problems caused by their partners. That's because the data management just plain worked.

Over the years we were fortunate enough to expand that network considerably. Different enterprises, with different specialties joined the network. The next was down the block. The one after that was across town. The one after that was in the next county. After 25 years the network was many states wide. Everyone in the network contributied their core competencies to each other and everyone played nicely or they got yanked from the pool.

My current day job is based on the best remote partnering relationship I've ever been blessed to participate in. My friend and business partner Dave lives and supervises manufacturing of our equipment in the next state over, Illinois. We headquartered the biz in Wisconsin where I live and work. By planning our enterprise around this circumstance from the beginning, it feels as though we're just a cubicle away most of the time.

How does this work? Surprise. Good data management. Knowing where everything is all the time and when it should be somewhere else. Everything. All the time. Heard that before?

This remote partnering idea works with employees and co-workers as well. If you have an employee that you have to be standing near to supervise, I'd suggest that is an employee you don't necessarily want anyway. Why not let your coworkers live somewhere else too? They're grown ups. If they're good at what they do, their contributions are obvious.

This model requires moving physical goods and digital data effortlessly. I believe you'll need to have access to the commercial shipping grid (FedX, UPS, DHL, USPS, etc) and as fast a data connection to the internet as you can afford. It's doable without these, but a lot trickier and subject to problems. More on shipping in a future post.

For remote partnering data management, you can start with pen and paper, telephone and faxes, but I'd go digital ASAP. There are terrific database programs available to run on multiple platforms that we, the un-digerati, can readily make use of. Database programs allow you to present the same data a zillion different ways depending on how you want to look at it and what you want to do with it. Data files can easily be sent over the internet or live wired to a network.

At some point organizations will find the sweet spot where coalescing around a physical 3D location has merit. We've done that, but much of the organization is still remote, including me. Very little in life has to be all or nothing.

Remote partnering takes people of good will acting justly to keep the enterprise sustainable. As the complexity level goes up the need for written documentation for these relationships grows. But that's not new legal ground here in the 21st century. It's been done and any good biz attorney can match up an appropriate solution to your circumstances.

Remote partners can be your friends or relatives (careful!), new people you've carefully networked with to create the opportunity, outside businesses, or people directly employed by your organization. Most likely it'll be a mixture of these.

Downsides? This remote partnering stuff really confuses the bureaucracies set up to support small enterprises. Monies to support local businesses aren't available when your employees live in another state. State tax breaks for many business aren't available when the headquarters is someplace else. But who cares. Better not to rely on that stuff any way. You're better off spending your time selling than begging bureaucrats, but that's also for another posting.

I'm convinced remote partnering is an extremely valuable tool for sustainable enterprises, given the right individuals, the right talents, and good execution.

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