Black Monday

October 1, 2006

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

This story has become so well known that it borders on being either legend or cliché, depending on your point of view. After a year of careful planning, I incorporated my new company on October 19, 1987, better known as “Black Monday.”

On that day, the stock market took its biggest dive in history. The national economy was collapsing around us, and here we were, starting a business from the ground up.

It's a great story about brave entrepreneurs forging ahead against the odds, and new technology emerging triumphant even as the old crumbled. It has all the components of a good sound byte, and I never miss a chance to market it.

The story behind the story is told much less often. It is just as short, but the lessons are more subtle. At one point on that fateful Monday, as the radio spewed forth reports of ever-increasing gloom, my new business partner turned to me in concern and asked, “What does all this mean to us?”

My reply, which in hindsight was one of my most accurate prognostications, was simply, “Nothing. It means nothing at all to us.”

Know when to hold 'em

Our new venture wasn't publicly capitalized, so plummeting stock prices didn't dry up our funds. Our potential clients' needs for printed books and manuals wasn't changed by the crash, so sales weren't in danger. In fact, a new company offering a more economical production flow (ondemand printing, quite the novelty back then) actually might have had more appeal in tough times.

The press loves names like “Black Monday.” They know we eat it up. If the market doesn't crash today, they'll find something else, like, “The GDP increased by only 2.8 percent, which is 0.1 percent less than expected.” We could analyze a statement like that for hours, but we probably shouldn't waste our time.

I'm not for a minute suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand. I am saying that a cursory examination of any information should precede indepth analysis.

When our customers send us digital files for print, there are procedures most of us follow before the actual process of turning bits and bytes into ink on paper.

First, we check for viruses. Is the file really what it purports to be? If the file is legitimate, we move to preflighting. We check to see that the files are properly constructed for print, not only to industry specifications but to our specific workflow.

Why are we so careful about what we put into our workflow? Because we've learned that it is easiest to identify defects before we've spent lots of our time and our customers' money printing the unprintable.

Know when to walk away

Why don't we do the same with the overabundance of information with which the media, our associations and our government inundate us? If you won't put garbage into your RIP, why do you invite it into your brain?

First, apply mental antivirus and spam filters. If I hear “black on white is dead” from someone with a four-color press to sell me, I take it with a grain of salt. If a service makes its money emailing daily information to printers, then today's “hot” economic story might be newsworthy only because it is a slow news day. I bet you'll never get an email saying, “Nothing important today, so we won't trouble you.”

Remember also: Not everything important is important to you. Is your niche Sunday bulletins for local churches? Then you may safely skip that report about losing business to printers in China.

Once we've mentally deleted information from less credible sources, we need a preflight system. My nominee isn't taught in business school.

The renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr penned a famous prayer that begins, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This should be our information acid test. What can I do something about, and what is beyond my control? Will I really do anything? Should I attend this seminar about activity-based costing? Not if I can't even get accurate timesheets from the plant! The courage to change things must be blended with the wisdom to know the difference.

Could I have foreseen a terrorist attack five years ago, precipitating an economic downturn? No. Could I have read the handwriting on the wall that clearly indicated the economy was already in trouble a year before? Yes. Should I have ignored the print industry's best known economists in 2001? Yes, and I should have known to ignore them by studying pertinent economic data myself, so that my company was better prepared when 9/11 happened.

Now all we need is the wisdom to determine things like this. That one isn't so easy. Parting thought: Wisdom seems to come much more readily when I actually stop and think.