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Innovative new concept presents business opportunity for the channel

Skywell, the first smart atmospheric water generator is now available to buy in the UK. Jason Cort, Director of Product Planning and Marketing at Sharp Europe reveals more about the exclusive deal

PrintIT Reseller (PITR): How did the Skywell relationship with Sharp come about?

Jason Cort (JC): Sharp’s strategic alliance with Skywell initially came about through a shared relationship with Foxconn in the US. Very early on, Skywell had concluded that partnering with an existing vendor or manufacturer within the print channel was a good initial go-to-market strategy. The company’s target customer and core business model, which is built on hardware sales on the front end with future consumable component sales and ongoing maintenance requirements, are extremely compatible with the existing sales model within the print channel.

In fact, Skywell was already exploring potential distribution partnerships in the US before it received a suggestion from Foxconn (which at the time was in the process of acquiring a majority ownership stake in Sharp Corporation) to meet with representatives of Sharp USA.

Skywell’s technology fits in extremely well with Foxconn’s vision for the Future Office, which is a concept that Sharp has also been developing and investing in heavily over the past year. Not only does Skywell’s atmospheric water generator support the sustainability and CSR goals of many large organisations, its premium appearance, enhanced user experience, and integration with office infrastructure through the unit’s tablet message board, make it an exciting addition to any portfolio.

Following a series of meetings between Skywell, Sharp USA and Sharp Japan, in late 2017, Skywell and Sharp entered into a formal distribution arrangement under which Sharp acquired the exclusive rights to sell Skywell products through its direct sales channel in the US.

This relationship has subsequently expanded to include Europe, where Skywell is now available to buy exclusively through Sharp and its partners. From our perspective, products like Skywell are key differentiators between Sharp and its competitors, an asset that our channel partners also benefit from.

PITR: Why is it important for channel vendors to explore new areas of innovation?

JC: The traditional print industry has been declining in recent years. Businesses aren’t going to stop printing overnight, but digital products and services will continue to displace print. Print organisations will need to adapt to this change, or risk being left behind.

However, it’s important for OEMs and dealers to think strategically about this change, both in the short- and long-term. It is not as simple as replacing all legacy products with new digital technologies or services. The print industry is built upon a very specific annuity model of multi-year (three-five) service contracts. Therefore, the added complication off-setting a declining print business will be finding multi-annuity business alternatives that can support an organisation’s key revenue streams as they diversify.

PITR: What’s the appeal of Skywell for print resellers?

JC: The channel has reacted well to Skywell. Not only does it provide resellers with upfront revenue from a hardware lease, it also provides an annuity over a four-year period, meaning it works very well as an alternative to traditional MFPs. Additionally, Skywell gives resellers something truly unique to offer their customers, which is vital in a competitive environment.

For dealers, Skywell has several points of appeal for their core customer base. The innovative technology and premium look can help companies to elevate important office spaces, such as reception areas. It also helps to reduce a business’ carbon footprint by eliminating the need for single-use plastic and container transportation – issues that businesses are much more aware of in today’s cultural climate.

OEMs and their channel partners need to find more alternatives like this, which can give them the reliability and support needed to diversify, along with the innovation needed to drive their business forward.

PITR: Sharp has been encouraging its partners to diversify their business offerings and sales approaches in order to meet the expectations of end-users for some time, what results have you seen?

JC: Everyone knows that the print industry is facing major disruption as a result of the inevitable march toward digital transformation. According to Quocirca’s Global Print 2025 market insight study, 71 per cent of manufacturers are aware that disruption is coming. However, only 39 per cent expressed confidence that they were ready for future changes.

The bottom line is that adapting alongside the changing expectations of end-users is going to be critical to business success and longevity. Within the next decade, the generational makeup of the workforce is going to change even more than it already has. Baby boomers will continue to retire, while millennials will increasingly become the decision-makers in organisations. Add to this the even-younger generations that will soon be joining the workforce and the expectations surrounding workplace technology and culture will be completely different.

Businesses across all sectors need to understand this shifting landscape in order to remain relevant. For the print channel, this means being open to partnerships that create compelling solutions that customers truly value. It also means thinking more about the overall experience of the end-user and making sure the products you provide have the features and functionality that people need and want most.

Incorporating products like Skywell into their portfolios will help channel organisations to show they understand this evolution and the modern office environment. Skywell units allow employees to track hydration levels, for example, which can help to contribute to overall health and wellbeing. This fits in extremely well with modern office culture. The environmental attributes of the units are also very in keeping with millennial attitudes to sustainability.

Early adoptors within the channel have already taken steps to diversify. We are seeing more MFP resellers incorporating visual solutions, such as Sharp’s BIG PAD, into their portfolios, alongside as-a-service products that work well with the channel’s legacy way of working. Other organisations will need to follow suit if they want to remain competitive.

PITR: What do you see as the key challenges and opportunities facing channel organisations in 2019?

JC: One of the biggest challenges for channel organisations in 2019 will be overcoming the psychological barrier that is stopping them from diversifying into new areas. It can be understandably difficult for a reseller to accept that the industry in which they have built a successful business in is declining.

Even if you acknowledge the need for change, the process itself can be hard. Taking the leap and moving into unfamiliar areas has the potential to feel overwhelming for a traditional organisation. For many, the first question will be ‘where do we even start?’. It is becoming increasingly difficult for resellers to sell their traditional MFP businesses, so increasing the pace of diversification across the channel as whole is very important.

Having said that, there are a number of resellers that are already well on the way to transforming their businesses. What we have started to see and will continue to see throughout 2019 is channel organisations seizing opportunities to become more IT centric, by investing in new technology, new devices and moving to the cloud.

The ability to develop partnerships that play to the strengths of both parties, like the Sharp and Skywell relationship, will be an important differentiator for channel organisations in the coming year. There are huge gains to be made for channel organisations that are proactive about forging mutually beneficial partnerships that help them take the leap into new markets.

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