Editor's letter: Ankur Shah on harnessing hyperconnectivity

Throughout our current Spotlight series, Harnessing Hyperconnectivity, we’re focusing on how unprecedented access to information, data and new technology is empowering people to do things differently. Here our series guest editor, entrepreneur Ankur Shah, explains how he built and runs his business - mahabis - using a very modern approach.

In 2014 I decided to do something a little ridiculous. I started selling slippers. No one had bothered to reinvent the slipper in centuries, perhaps wisely. It wasn’t something I’d always set out to do either. No lifelong dream. Instead, I did it because I found some data. Some hyperconnected data.

My starting point was Google Trends; a tool that converts over three billion daily web searches, from people around the world, into a series of trends. One of those was an overwhelming number of searches for slippers. Huge demand; a multi-billion dollar industry with no brand I could easily recall. I’d found my little part of the internet to call home.

Four years on, and one million slipper sales later, it turns out the data wasn’t wrong. But much more interestingly, from setting up global supply chains to engaging with customers in over 100 countries, our small journey was the perfect illustration of how hyperconnectivity had really changed so many aspects of our world.  

In the world of manufacturing, globalisation has revolutionised the way goods are sourced, made and sold. Alibaba in China has over 8.5 million active sellers and manufacturers, who in turn sell over $250 billion worth of retail goods. These are staggering numbers. Made all the more staggering by the fact that the company was only founded in 1999. We’re connecting people and industries in ways we’ve never done before, at a scale we couldn’t have perceived a decade ago. At mahabis, I contacted factories online in places as disparate as Tunisia and Poland. Ultimately we partnered with a family-run manufacturer in a small village in the depths of Southern Poland; apparently the slipper-manufacturing hub of Europe. Who knew?! We’ve since moved to Portugal, but those early days taught me a considerable lesson in humility: there were makers all over the world, in the smallest villages, and now they were being connected. But to whom?

Read: Presenteeism and technology - understanding an uneasy relationship

Consumers. You and I. Collectively, we are spread across the globe. It’s just that now, we’re all connected to the same central hub as everyone else. The large central plaza called the internet. There are over two billion people on Facebook. There’s 980 million on Snapchat. WhatsApp and YouTube, each 1.5 billion. At some point we started talking in billions rather than millions. This means that whether you’re harnessing these tools for business or pleasure, your addressable market just became enormous and accessible; it became the planet. You can reach (for a price) virtually anyone in the world. At mahabis, we chose to go global from day one. We started by using social advertising to reach prospective customers in over 100 countries. We scaled rapidly. Global became our default setting. The only customer requisite being an internet connection and feet.

This hyperconnected plaza that we live in has allowed our customer base and factories to be spread across the world. But crucially, it’s enabled our workforce to do the same. Like many (old and new) companies, we’ve harnessed tools that allow our employees to work full-time, part-time, from home, or abroad. We work a four day workweek. Our customers operate 24/7. A rigid workday just wouldn’t make sense. We’ve recruited freelancers via online platforms, and collaborated with them via a plethora of tools at our disposal. Platforms such as Skype, Slack and Google Hangouts have rapidly become stalwarts of the information age, connecting video, audio and text in real-time. Working from anywhere has become more than just feasible, it’s often more productive than working from an office. Companies like Auttomatic (700+ employees) have pioneered fully remote working. Even the mighty IBM recently remarked that their work-from-home workforce are “more engaged, have stronger trust in leadership and much stronger intention to stay.” This was all unimaginable in an unconnected world; faxing your colleagues back and forth to chat didn’t quite have the same efficacy.

Ultimately, technology has enabled us to put employee trust and freedom at the heart of how we think. You only need to encourage work-life balance if the structure doesn’t allow it in the first place. Technology is licensing us to redraw the structures of life and work, to challenge norms that have existed for centuries.

Read: Is technology bringing an equal opportunity revolution?

And what if all this meant you could actually work less? That fabled Keynesian promise of a 15-hour workweek could be realised. After all, wasn’t technology meant to free us? Over the last 20 years, average working hours have dropped in almost all the countries that the OECD reports on. A recent study by UWE Bristol suggests that commuting alone takes up nearly 19 standard working days. What if we leveraged technology to mean we commuted less? What if commuting simply meant turning your computer on? What might the impact be on your family life, your finances, your physical and emotional wellbeing? New technologies connecting people and data have inspired many unforeseen innovations, and made businesses like mahabis, not just possible, but successful. However, the impact of this new, deeply connected landscape is creating more than just commercial opportunities, it’s influencing vast swathes of our behaviour in both our work and personal lives.

According to IBM the world generates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data everyday. I’ve absolutely no idea how much that is, but it sounds like a lot. Our avenues for communication and connection today have clearly increased exponentially. Whether your poison of choice is LinkedIn (500m+ users) or Tinder (1bn swipes a day), the way we now perceive and embark upon future life opportunities has changed beyond recognition; from finding our next job, to our future spouse. Being this connected this comprehensively is complex. And this complexity is inevitably challenging century-old norms of work and life. You can either choose to resist or embrace the potential it brings.

For me, well, I think it’s an opportunity to change the way we think about work, to ‘work’ less, to see life and work a little more holistically; technology has afforded me that privilege.

And with a newborn son sleeping to my right, I’m going to seize the opportunity to work a little less and live a little more.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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