Searching for the Unicorn

How to find – or create – revolutionary products and applications completely unique to our wide-format world.

In 2013, venture capitalist Aileen Lee began referring to startup companies that attained a billion-dollar valuation as becoming a member of the “unicorn club.” The term “unicorn” evolved into anything so unique that it’s almost unattainable. 

The unicorn I find myself constantly searching for – or hoping to invent – is any product totally unique to our market. Something, hopefully, no one has ever seen before or maybe even contemplated. And once it’s revealed to our clients, they must have it. But here’s the most important variable: They have a choice of where to buy this unicorn product. They can buy it from us, or… they can buy it from us. 

Back to the Future

I searched my memory bank and tried to remember products I thought would be unicorns. One that comes to mind is lenticular. I remember the first time I saw it. OMG! Printed 3D images on a flat surface. With the A-B flip, if you looked at the image from a slightly different angle, the image changed. This progressed to producing a few frames of a video. Why did this product not become a unicorn? I think once you saw it a few times the “wonder” wore off. Plus, it was expensive compared to a simple, but high-quality 2D print. Close, but no cigar.

I would venture to guess not many of us are engaged in producing lenticular printing in 2018. What are some of the unicorn-like products and technologies of the past that many of us still produce today? 

Dye sublimation to fabric was certainly a unicorn in ’96 and ’97. (There were only four of us producing dye sub in the US, as I recall.) Now, almost all of us utilize dye sublimation as a core printing method. What was “rocket science” is now routine. This is a great example of how unicorns are born and how they die. 

Another dead unicorn from that same period is CNC routing or digitally contour cutting prints before the dawn of i-cut technology. Customers were blown away, which helped us land a major client that’s still with us today. 

Another unicorn is digitally printed commercial wallcoverings. I think it was ’97 when we were asked to beta test a product called Wallternatives. We became one of a handful of companies in the world producing digital commercial wallpaper that involved an ingenious electrostatic print transfer to the adhesive side of a clear film. It was a great unicorn until solvent-printed, and, later, UV-cured commercial wallcoverings hit the market.

Notice all of these examples are from the mid- to late-1990s. Large- and grand-format printing technologies were not yet settled. It’s easier to find unicorns when technology is in the early stages of its evolution. This was just as higher-resolution, expanded-gamut, solvent printing was coming onto the scene. UV-cured printing was not yet commercially available. (Seriously, how did we live without UV-cured printing?)

2018

This is today. Is there anything truly new and revolutionary in the world of large- and grand-format digital printing? Only if you limit the conversation to better, faster, cheaper (BFC). A great example of BFC is single-pass printing. The end product isn’t fundamentally different, it’s just, you know, BFC. 

Those of you who have read my most recent columns or witnessed me speak at WFX: Wide-Format Exchange will know that we’ve adopted 3D print technologies. This was the direct result of our search for the next unicorn. I won’t spend more than a paragraph on this. But, the two most promising 3D products this transition has yielded are 3D-printed channel letters and 3D-printed SEG frames of any shape and size. I will address the overlap between 3D and large- and grand-format 2D printing in a future column, so stay tuned.

Because we plan to maintain our core digital printing capability, and in keeping with the title of this column, we will transition from products that have become commoditized and focus on products that are more unique. For now, these include 3-meter-wide carpet, one dye sublimated nonwoven, and a low-pile carpet printed with latex. Another is large-format dye sublimation to rigid materials like wood and metal. Our goal is to discover a product that is either new or unique enough to limit our competition in the marketplace. The challenge is: Where do we look for this next big thing?

From Our Customer

In the past, some of our best product ideas have come from asking customers what they want or need but can’t find. 

Recently I got a phone call from a long-time client. He said he had been thinking about developing a product for about three or four months, and he wanted to team up with someone he trusted. The good news is I think his idea is a winner and it’s within our ability to develop. Best of all, there doesn’t seem to be any prior art, meaning the product, if created, can be protected. If you are receptive, sometimes the unicorn comes to you. 

From the Media Supplier or Manufacturer

Two tips on this. Make an effort to attend SGIA, ISA, FESPA, and drupa as often as possible. Walk the floor and try to stop by every media company to see what’s new. You will be amazed at some of the gems you will find. 

Offer to beta test materials for manufacturers – this gives you access to products before they are commercially available. We were selected to be the beta site for a manufacturer last year, and in the next two months we’ll receive a beta machine from another manufacturer. We have done this quite a few times in over two decades. Beta testing advanced technologies gives you a significant head start to producing potential unicorns. 

Source a print material outside the industry. We have a printable flooring product we buy from the flooring industry. It’s significantly less expensive than similar products that come through our industry’s supply chain, and has some performance advantages. 

From Equipment Manufacturers

Luckily, the same shows also include most of the printer manufacturers. In 2007, we discovered a manufacturer that had a printer with the ability to print white/color/white to glass. That became a unicorn for us for at least three years. Spend time at the manufacturers’ booths and try to talk to engineers, as well as sales people. 

But my best advice – or what has worked the best for us – is being open to taking sales calls for media and equipment. I try to sit in on each meeting and end with one request: Please call me directly any time you come across anything new that you believe is revolutionary. I give them my personal cell phone number. This has yielded several unicorns over the decades and certainly has helped us come to market sooner with a number of evolutionary and revolutionary products. 

Just like the mythical creature it’s named for, a wide-format unicorn isn’t going to magically walk onto your shop floor. Obtaining a totally unique product or application takes time, persistence, a willingness to try new things, and a fair amount of luck. But, having a unicorn up your sleeve is a surefire way to expand your shop’s market share and solidify your reputation as a cutting-edge print provider. Take some time to start hunting for your shop’s unicorn today.

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