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Lesson from the U.S. Postal Service

What can you learn from the fate of USPS? That your business must evolve or face extinction.
The mission of the USPS has not changed since 1775: to provide the American public with trusted universal postal service at affordable prices.
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The United States Postal Service (USPS) can trace its roots back to 1775 when Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. The mission of the USPS was then, and in large part remains, to provide the American public with trusted universal postal service at affordable prices.

But a few things have changed since 1775 here in the U.S. In 1775 the primary means of communication was by and through writings on paper. The country needed a reliable service to get messages from one point to another to serve the greater good. But with the invention of the telephone circa 1876 and, more recently, the Internet and related electronic mail service our need to physically write things down on a piece of paper and to have it delivered to another to communicate has been greatly diminished if not virtually eradicated. Add in competitive forces from private parcel services such as UPS and FedEx and, in the absence of an evolving mission, the USPS has effectively rendered itself moot.

As proof of the point in recent years the USPS has fallen upon hard times. On December 5, 2011 the USPS announced it would close more than half of its mail processing centers, eliminate 28,000 jobs and end overnight delivery of first-class mail. Now, some of these cut backs have been scaled back or put on hold, but in the absence of an evolving mission and recognition of those competitive forces the USPS will not be able to right the ship and will soon become a relic of our country’s past.

So what can you learn from the USPS’s struggles? Here is the lesson I have taken away that is applicable to every business.

The Marketplace is Evolving Around You: Your Business Must Evolve With It

In 1775, aside from face-to-face meetings, the primary means of communicating with one another was to send a letter. Thus the original mission of the USPS fit nicely within this market: to provide the American public with trusted universal postal service at affordable prices. By the late 1800s the landscape of communications was changing with the increasing popularity of the telephone. Our ability to communicate with one another was evolving and moving away from the written word. Still, the USPS’s mission remained unchanged.

By the 1970s the modern pre-cursors to today’s facsimile machines were being perfected such that by the 1980s almost all businesses and many homes began relying on the same to transmit papers and documents outside of traditional mail. Still, the USPS’s mission remained unchanged.

Finally, the 1990s ushered in the technological wave that may ultimately prove to be the last straw on the USPS’s already strained back: the Internet. Now with electronic mail moving through cyberspace at the blink of an eye and texting becoming an ever-increasing component of our society today’s younger generations cannot even comprehend waiting for the proverbial mail to arrive. Still, the USPS’s mission has remained unchanged.

Why is this so important? In understanding and evaluating the struggles of one business we can use these lessons learned to avoid similar consequences in our own.

So where could the USPS have changed course to avoid its current path? Perhaps the USPS would have invested in secure transmission of facsimiles offering better facsimile services than others through the 1980s. When the 1990s rolled around instead of mailboxes on every corner combined e-mail kiosks / mailboxes could have been rolled out leveraging the power of communication all the while being true to the original intent of their mission. Almost everyone has a gmail.com or yahoo.com email account. Why did they not provide the most secure free e-mail accounts available to the general public maintaining a living and breathing version of that original mission?

Why? They did not evolve as communication technology evolved around them. So what is the take away from this brief study? How does it apply to your business?

Your business must evolve. Keep your finger on the pulse of your marketplace to know where it is headed and how your business must adapt to meet the ever changing needs of your customers. If you can, your business will continue to flourish. If you cannot, well, that message has already been delivered by the USPS.

Last updated: Jan 3, 2012

MATTHEW SWYERS | Columnist | Founder, The Trademark Company

Matthew Swyers is the founder of The Trademark Company, a Web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-size businesses. The company is ranked No. 138 on the 2011 Inc. 500.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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