InnerWorkings’ Eric Belcher on Operating During a Recession

You know it. We know it. The economy has been awful for sometime now, and there's no sense in being cute about getting that information across. No, this is a time for practicality, rolling up your sleeves, and soldiering on. It's a time to be smart about what you're doing, and unflinchingly honest.

One such company people turn to when getting proactive is InnerWorkings. It's a Chicago-based print procurement company that's a decade old, and has grown from a local company to a global force. What's more, it's posted an impressive 98 percent customer retention -- worldwide. (For those unfamiliar, "print procurement" is the management of all printing-related costs through meticulous planning.)

Since InnerWorkings is often embedded with its own clients, I gave CEO Eric Belcher a call to talk about ways companies can be smarter and more savvy about cutting costs and staying strong in a crumbling economy.

What should people focus on when operating a business in tough economic times?

Eric Belcher: The first thing that comes to mind is the word "focus." Don't try to be all things and everywhere. It just doesn't work. At InnerWorkings, no matter what company we're speaking to, how small or how large, we recommend that they trust in partners and relinquish control of non-core activities. We do that as a company. Our clients have obviously made the decision to do that -- to trust in us and let go of managing their print procurement department. In our world, it's just focus on that which is your core skills and core strategies.What if people feel like they can't pare back any more?

Eric Belcher: Even someone who's very well aware of their company's goals and niche, it still takes a conscious decision to relinquish the control and energy and cost expended against those things which don't fit directly against that niche. That's a conscious strategy. It takes effort. A lot of companies, we find, may not realize that. Even though they admit their core, they're still involved in a tremendous number of other functions that they could more successfully let go.

Using your company as an example, though, how did you focus on your core while growing from a local company to a worldwide one?

Eric Belcher: I guess the advice I would give is to think ambitiously. Think bigger. Think big picture. There are no shortcuts, of course. It's a hell of a lot of work, but it can be a lot of fun, too. If you see the potential, go for it. I think we're seeing more of that in Chicago these days. I love it.

Obviously it's tough to make a blanket statement, but can you think of a case where being ambitious in a recession could hurt you?

Eric Belcher: Well, it has to be calculated, risks. If you have a solution that you find works well in a region or with a certain segment of the business or consumer population and you believe it's going to work equally well if you were to spread it more broadly -- what we did at InnerWorkings was go out aggressively and invested and worked hard to bring the message around the globe. It's working out very well. We could have stuck to being a regional player. We could have been satisfied with just the North American market, but at the end of the day we're thinking bigger. I would encourage entrepreneurs who feel they've got a great product or service to think as broadly as possible about their market. Be ambitious. It's fun.

On your website you talk about having 98 percent customer retention. How have you managed that through all your transitions? Surely people on a global scale don't want the same sorts of things as people in your own backyard.

Eric Belcher: We don't grow at the expense of the service we're providing our existing clients. The growth engine of the company is separate from our customer service and operations group. We have a retention rate that I think exceeds anything in our industry and most likely in many others primarily because we consider ourselves to be a part of our client's business. We work for them. Oftentimes we sit onsite in their offices, get invited to their holiday parties, and we're wholly transparent with our economics, so there's no guessing. There's no customer-vendor relationship. We're just an integral part of their business and we think from their standpoint, and for their benefit. I think that's why you see retention rate that we're posting.

We've been talking about how to operate in more trying times, but in your opinion, do you think entrepreneurs and businesses should operate this way even when the economy is better?

Eric Belcher: There aren't a lot of things that jump to mind for me that I would do differently, whether the economic situation is good or it's bad. I think at the end of the day you can get caught up in a lot of noise on that front, and ignoring that -- to the extent that it doesn't actually have a meaningful impact on your business or your strategy -- and focusing on your customers and your strategy, it seems to me, the only way to go.

Contact Us