In a very short period of time, opinions of anything can change. It wasn’t so long ago that these statements were made about the internet as a commercial platform:
- It’s for nerds. “Fine, you nerds can do what you want but normal people are never going to use this thing.”
- It’s completely decentralized, which means you can’t trust it. No business is ever going to do anything on it because businesses won’t work on an untrusted environment. There won’t ever be any e-commerce.
- There will never be any internet payments. No one will put their credit card on the internet.
- It’s an open-source kind of thing so there will be no Internet companies.
- It’s got all these technical deficiencies. It’s slow. It’s unreliable. It doesn’t work right. When you do a search, sometimes you get an answer back and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes when you dial in you get a busy signal.
- What happen if your ISP goes out of business? Then you can’t get back online.
- Once you get on the internet, even assuming you get on the internet, there’s nothing to do. There’s no content. Time magazine isn’t online, the New York Times isn’t online. It’s just a bunch of nerd stuff.
These classic soundbites come from Marc Andreessen in a recent interview while referencing those who think bitcoin will never be more than some kind of digital space oddity. While we are on the topic of economic change, it is telling to have a look at the market valuations of the top 10 internet companies. That is, companies less than 20 years old who could not have existed pre dot com. The US top 10 public companies now have an accumulated value of $1.168 trillion dollars.
- Google – $585 billion
- Facebook – $170 billion
- Amazon – $155 billion
- Ebay – $65 billion
- Priceline – $65 billion
- Yahoo – $36 billion
- Salesforce.com – $36 billion
- Twitter – $24 billion
- Linkedin – $21 billion
- Expedia – $11 billion
We can also add the upcoming float of Alibaba.com to this at anything between a further $120 to $200 billion.
This takes my mind directly to the potential of 3D printing, web of things and the solar energy industry. All of which are in their 1993 era. The only question remaining for entrepreneurs reading is this; What are you going to do about it?
The internet is an infinite ever expanding place. We all live inside of it, move around it and want our share of attention and activity from it. The ultimate thing we all seem to want (even if secretly) is to get everyone to pay attention to our blog post, video, social feed, pithy statement of insight and all other forms of digital output. That’s the promise of something going viral. Because if we get that attention, if everyone catches on and shares our work, we’ll be on the path the greatness. We’ll have broken through the masses and be able to leverage the focus on us. Turn attention into a relationship. That’s the promise of being shared on the Verge or Buzzfeed or Viral Nova. But here’s the truth about that piece of viral marketing. It doesn’t work, it rarely has impact and is a fleeting moment, a shooting star, a moment from which the utility is the moment itself. It expires quickly.
What we need to imagine is this. The internet is a giant beach. We are all grains of sand on that beach. Some of us try to be more than a single, undifferentiated grain of sand. We agglomerate, co-ordinate and try and turn ourselves into something worth noticing. Maybe we become a beautiful sea shell. Beautiful enough for the the people walking along that beach to stop and take notice. They might see us, pick us up and inspect the sea shell. Comment on the sheer beauty, show their friend who they happen to be walking along the beach with. We get passed around, and we become the moment. They might even take the sea shell – save it – put it in the pocket and take it home, because it’s valuable – add it to their ‘favourites’. But what we must really understand is that they will keep on walking. The passer by is not there for us. Even if they are walking along the beach (the internet) to see and find interesting things, we can only ever be one of those things that makes their journey interesting. They continue on with whatever it is they are doing and onto their destination.
Viral activity, in real terms is just scenery. And I should know. I’ve had a number of blog posts with more than 100,000 views. I’ve had 2 videos with millions of views. And I’ve been featured on all those websites mentioned at the the start of this blog post. And the over riding lesson is that people get on with their lives. Viral marketing is only effective when there is a formula for repeated impact – a business model around it, which is not easy to do. If we want the impact that we falsely believe viral marketing can create, then we’d be better off focusing on utility and frequency. That is creating something which has utility for the people beyond the moment. Utility which is worth coming back for again and again. And what that takes isn’t luck, it’s more about hard work serving others over long periods of time.
I had the good fortune this week to meet the inventor of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners Lee. He is currently touring Australia and after he gave a public lecture at Melbourne University, I was lucky enough to attend a private session thanks to the AUDA and meet him personally.
Firstly, I’d like to say he was a total gentleman, who is very humble for all that he has given us. Over drinks I asked him what seemed like the first non techie question he’d been asked all night, and his answer I found totally inspiring. The dialogue is below:
Me: “Tell me how it feels to have created something everyone loves and uses every day…. How do you cope with all the attention and adulation?”
Tim: “Well, I’m just Tim, a normal guy around campus. But, it is interesting you asked that, because I made a conscious decision to avoid the public sphere for the first 10 years after I created it. I didn’t do any interviews or make any public appearances. Mainly so it wouldn’t interfere with my family. About 10 years into the web I received a letter telling me that I was to receive the Millenium Prize in Finland. It turned out that the ceremony happened to be on my son’s birthday. So I wrote back to them saying that I couldn’t make it on that day as it was my son’s birthday. That I could come if they changed the date. They then wrote back to me saying something like… ‘You don’t understand Tim, this is like a really big thing, and the dates can’t be changed….’ And then I wrote back saying, ‘No, you don’t understand, nothing gets in the way of my family, I’m very honoured, but you’ll have to give it to someone else.’ Well – in the end they were determined that I come and suggested they fly our entire family over so that we could still celebrate his birthday as a family, and so that I could still get the prize, and that they would pay respect to my sons birthday at all the ceremony. So I asked my son Ben and he was ok with it. In fact, he really enjoyed his birthday as entire auditoriums sang him happy birthday and he had something like 5 birthday cakes while we were there.”
I thought this was cool and grounded. In fact, it’s a terrific thing when someone you respect greatly, gives you more reasons to respect them after you’ve actually met.
(A photo with Tim – He said ‘Send me a copy of the photo!‘ – but I’m sure he says that to every fan boy who asks for a picture.)
While it is clear that the birth of the omnipresent web has changed our business infrastructure, it’s not clear that most people understand the truth about digital as it pertains to business, brand or startup strategy. Here’s a simple phrase to help remind us:
There is no digital.
There is only ‘life’. We seamlessly move between a variety of technologies in our day. As we have done since the beginning of time with all forms of technology. We don’t have a digital life and an analogue life as much as we don’t have a sitting on a chair life or a sitting on the floor life. A chair is just a piece of technology like the latest shinny thing in our pockets is. And it’s about time we started recognizing that a digital strategy is a flawed one by definition. All that exists is a strategy that makes sense – one which is technology agnostic. One that achieves objectives by considering all of the methods and tools at our disposal.
The days of digital strategy are over. Anyone who doesn’t get digital, doesn’t get strategy. We need start to think again in terms of utility for the audience – it’s only when we focus on their needs that we can ever hope to be a solution in their day.
I was recently watching this documentary about break dancing and its evolution in the Bronx of New York. You may remember from previous posts that I was very much into the activity, before the main stream media and taste makers decided it was over. They pulled the albums from the shelves, stopped showing it on TV (I had 3 channels to chose from) and let it evaporate into history as a fad we can all look back on.
What you probably don’t know about break dancing is that it was around for about 10 years before it hit the mainstream. In fact, it was pretty much developed on a single housing block in the South Bronx. It didn’t move from this single location for the best part of a decade. The 3 tenants of Hip Hip: the break dancing, the Music (DJ’s & MC’s) and the aerosol art – all thrived and evolved in one physical space over a large number of years without any external influence or involvement. A small community lead by people like Kool Herc, Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa added layers to their micro culture into a form of self bootstrapped art and entertainment. The period of development was iterative, local and very long before it blossomed into something amazing and beautiful. Hip Hop cultural was the veritable flower growing through a crack in the pavement. It didn’t appear in discotheques of Manhattan until it had fully developed. Only when this flower began to germinate and turn into an garden of undiscovered originality and urban culture – did any taste makers and marketers start to take notice. Only when it was fully developed could it turn into a global phenomenon where big dollars got made via the TV Industrial Complex.
I don’t think that this could happen today. The connected world just wouldn’t allow it. And while, I’m a technology evangelist, it’s true that all technology has some negative outcomes. The lack of isolation is one of these technology negatives. Certain things need the condition of isolation in order to develop to their true potential. To develop in a single environment without external influence. The exact kind of environment that Hip Hop culture both needed and thrived in. It’s why it was so pure and so real. It had to find its way with limited resources. The reason the 3 tenants of Hip Hop are what they are is because the founders were poor. They couldn’t afford instruments – so they used record players and microphones as an instruments. They used spray cans and train sides as their canvas. They took the only nutrients their environment of urban decay provided.
Today the entire connected world is looking for something interesting to blog about, to tweet about, to post on their youtube channel and start a tumblr page on. Anything that looks remotely interesting gets posted about, mashed up, promoted, storied, and presented to the world before it has even taken its own shape. The original community of anything different and interesting can’t own it and nurture it like they could pre-web. And I’m starting to think that we might be missing out on some of the cultural benefits which evolve from simple unadulterated time to develop. If the first blossom of a new species is picked, re-planted or re-purposed will we ever really see what that species might have turned into?
While we are urged to promote and share all that we do and find, maybe it is time to consider the opposite. To cocoon our idea in development until it has evolved into something worthy. The let the startup actually ‘start’, and find its place and take its own shape before others start to re-shape it on our behalf. Maybe it’s time for us to step back and let some things be, before we interrupt them.
The key to the success of all technology, is knowing when not to use it.
With great change, comes great tension. This tension often leads to a split between the opposing forces from which re-alignment may never occur. A favourite past time of many of us is predicting a winner – the eventual pattern that we’ll all follow.
No category is less pervasive in this arena than technology. But in reality it is becoming less and less about winners and losers, and much more about choice, fragmentation and tribes. An old axiom by Stewart Brand we’ll all remember is the one about “information wanting to be free”…. but it turns out that this story has an oft left out post script: He immediately added after this that “information also wants to be expensive”, which was a far less quoted caveat.
In a world were control is dissipating, and startups are changing everything, we ought remember that both directions can be equally valid.
Up until very recently – maybe 10 years ago – the people who made the stuff we use, didn’t really care if we could use it. Which is why anyone who have ever owned a VCR can remember the time flashing at 12am for most of its shelf life.
People who made stuff didn’t care, because they didn’t have to. Our options were limited. There were only so many brands to choose from, and only so many retailers to buy from. It was buy from them, or miss out. But they were nice enough to a write manuals for us. If you’ve ever had struggled to read or understand a user manual of some sort. I’ve got good news for you… I have the translation below.
“Hi there, we’ve written this manual in order to avoid have to give you any real or human feedback. You see, we are too busy selling this thing in so many countries, that caring would impact our short term profitability too much. So instead we just got some of our engineers to write this thing, and then we hired a translation company to put it into your language….. so if this is all reading a bit back to front, or just too technical to understand, then that is why. The reason our product needs a manual is that we are pretty much trying to be everything to everyone. We couldn’t really decide which features to include or exclude, so we just put all of them in. We believe we can charge a higher price if it has more features, we are not 100% sure, but why risk it? We know having this many features makes it harder to user, but it really makes it easier for our sales and marketing team to tell customers and retailers our ‘thing’ does everything. Our policy is to do the bare minimum when it comes to anything related to our product after we already have your money. And we know that all our competitors do much the same stuff so we reckon we can roll like this. Good luck!”
Lucky for us manuals are a thing of the past and smart brands know this. In this day and age the thing itself should be the manual. If it isn’t we can be pretty sure that someone will replace our stuff with a better user experience that’s intuitive and actually cares about the people using it.