Typewriters Survive on Death

When was the last time you saw a typewriter, let alone use it? If you were to visit any of the funeral parlors in New York or Connecticut you will find them alive but likely on their last breath. These once ubiquitous products survived only because of an anachronistic law in these states that require death certificates to be handwritten or typed.  And the funeral parlors hire typewriters for this job imposed purely due to an externality because the alternative, bad handwriting of undertakers, is not good enough.

Funeral directors in a handful of states must tap out death certificates on a typewriter, relics of the days when the machines represented a modern improvement over an undertaker’s handwriting.

The static customer segment is funeral parlors in a few states. If you look at need based segmentation  – those who cannot use modern printing methods because of negative externalities.  For this segment typewriter seem to do the job better than the next available alternative.

Once the externalities are removed the typewriters will find it extremely hard to justify their position. It does not matter how remarkable a customer experience the typewriter maker delivers , how innovative the ribbon technology is or how sleek the industrial design is. For the customer need imposed purely due to externalities, the product will cease to be the best candidate to fill the need once the externalities are removed regardless of its features.

Customer Jobs To Be Done Growth MatrixI wrote about a business progressing  from filling needs of one segment. That was the job to be done growth matrix.

With typewriters we are seeing regression, from serving various needs of different customer segments to serving one specific need of one segment.

“It was growing and growing and growing. I thought: ‘This will never end,’ ” he says.
(The Founder) He says the company sold “thousands and thousands” of typewriters at the peak but declined to be specific. Swintec still sells about 3,000 to 5,000 typewriters a year, to customers including universities, senior centers and state and federal prisons.

Even for this shrinking business they did manage to find another segment with same job to be done  –

but sales were declining by the late 1990s. Then the company stumbled on an idea: a clear typewriter for prisons. The company’s owner, Dominic Vespia, says they were inspired by other transparent products designed to prevent smuggling of contraband, from televisions to toothpaste tubes.

“It’s easier to hide things [in computers],” says Dan Pacholke, assistant secretary for the Washington State Department of Corrections.

They proved popular behind bars. In Texas, state prison inmates have purchased more than 1,500 Swintec typewriters since 2011 from penitentiary commissaries for up to $225 a pop, according to Jason Clark, a spokesman. Swintec typewriters are in Washington state prisons’ libraries and even some inmates’ cells.

As the growth matrix suggests, they did product pivot – transparent typewriters – to serve similar needs of new segment (prisoners). When you look at this closely this is once again a need imposed by an externality – need to prevent contraband being smuggled inside such devices.  As prisons find another way this opportunity will dwindle as well.

What we see here is a business that seemingly focused on customer needs and yet is shrinking. That is because they did not seek to understand the reasons for the need or ask what would happen when the underlying reasons change.  It is taking the quarter inch hole – quarter inch drill bit analogy a bit further.  Ted Levitt said,

Customers are not buying quarter inch drills but buying quarter inch holes

Apparently customers don’t need to buy quarter inch holes  either had it not been due to an arcane legislation.

Customer discovery and need exploration does not stop at observing customers use a product or breaking down the process into multiple steps. It requires second order thinking to ask, “why the first order need even exists? and what would happen if those drivers change?”

Do you understand your customers and their real needs?