Emulating German success: Bringing the Mittelstand to the UK

UK ink supplier Sprint Ink opened up shop in 2005 and now approaches its tenth successful year in business. How have they done it? – By doing business the German way; keeping things simple and not overreaching.

What is the German way?

German industry has continued to prosper throughout a tough economic climate. Entrepreneurs from all over the world flock to Germany to learn the secrets of their success. Much of this success is put down to the ‘Mittelstand’ which makes up 52% of the country’s GDP and 60% of the workforce.

The Mittelstand refers to the midsized manufacturing businesses tending to specialise in a relatively narrow range of products. They are often family run businesses that have been passed down through several generations and will rarely be known outside of their small town locations and niche markets.German Flag

The culture among these companies differs greatly from their adversaries in the UK. UK manufacturers are constantly looking to expand their product range in attempts to offer every possible product available in their industry. In Germany, Mittelstand companies may have just one or two products and will focus on mass producing these products at a high quality for a low price. Joachim Kreuzburg, boss of laboratory equipment manufacturer Sartorius, says of the Mittelstand “We are not digging for gold. We are selling shovels to the gold-diggers”.

Dominating the door handles

Karcher Design are a textbook example of a Mittelstand organisation. They produce door handles, bells and knockers. From their HQ in German town Bad Rappenau, Karcher sell handles to businesses all over the world. Karcher are a small family run firm that mass produce on a global scale. They are the epitome of the Mittelstand success that the UK wants to emulate. Through specialising in a narrow product range Karcher has achieved an extremely firm grip on their niche of door handles and knockers.

Door Handles

Where do Sprint Ink come into this?

Sprint Ink has managed to successfully apply Mittelstand principles to the UK market. Sprint Ink, who are now in their tenth year of trading, sell printer ink cartridges. They don’t sell tablets, headphones, kettles or vacuums cleaners; just ink. Pretty Mittelstand eh?

Whilst other ink suppliers get caught up varying their product ranges beyond the realms of ink into the likes of gadgets and other household appliances, Sprint have stuck to their guns and focussed on what they are good at.

Passion for Printing

If you walk into your average electronics store and ask a worker about printer ink, you will be speaking to an expert in electronics with some knowledge of ink. With Sprint Ink, however, you are speaking to someone who is an expert in printing. Business owner, Ian Wilson, has been running the outfit for ten years and knows everything there is to know about printing.

Sprint Ink Logo

This is where the Mittelstand principles of selling mainly ink give Sprint a level of credibility superior to that of their competitors. Ian Wilson is always eager to answer customer queries and provide honest advice on finding suitable printing solutions. On his website you will find an endless list of blogs covering a variety of topics from printing on post-it notes to achieving the perfect colour balance when taking photographs. His expertise in printing is second to none.

Ian set up a merchant account with Nochex in 2008 enabling him to take payments online and sell to consumers all over the world. In the seven years since then he has expanded his product range the German way – without overreaching. He now stocks an incredibly broad range of cartridges. Whether it be for home or professional use, whatever the brand – Sprint have the ink for it. There is a selection or printer paper, pukka pads and pens thrown in for good measure but the focus is very much on ink cartridges.

Sustainability is a key element of Bavarian business culture and it is thought that this is achieved through the focussed exploitation of narrow niche markets. Sprint have dominated their niche of printer ink and as a result have secured a safe long term future. Around the world the belief is that if Mittelstand culture can be exported into other markets then the success of the German economy can be repeated.

What is fascinating about Sprint is that they have applied these principles to the UK consumer market. The Mittelstand, who are often referred to as the backbone of the German economy, tend to sell parts and components to other manufacturers. Hopefully if more UK firms can make like Sprint Ink and bring German business culture to the retail market we will have a British Mittelstand in no time.

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