People have always traded and done business with each other in some form or another, with several key turning points over the course of history shaping the way that business is done. The most significant of these have taken place in the last 40 years...
A couple of years ago at a Virgin event I heard Richard Branson talking about his first business, a student magazine, and how he had to use a public phone box to sell the advertising that would fund it. It made think about how people managed to run a business without the Internet, email, a mobile phone, or the marketing power of social media, and to realise just how significant these milestone technology turning points have impacted the way that entrepreneurs start and run their businesses.
Internet and email
The 'Internet' was a term first bandied about in the early 1980s. Some 15 years later it was being used by around 45 million people. Today an estimated 40 per cent of the global population has an Internet connection. It is the medium through which businesses connect with their customers, showcase their wares, and ply their trade. The Internet has helped to make global expansion a reality for business owners by facilitating faster, more focused and more accurate market research. As part of the emerging online business era, email started to become popular, saving time and money on paper-based business correspondence. Its rapid growth is largely attributed to services like Gmail and Hotmail that helped turn it into a communication tool as ubiquitous as the telephone.
On New Years Day 1985 comedian Ernie Wise made the UK's inaugural mobile phone call, a landmark event that heralded the arrival of the UK’s mobile culture. However, because costs were astronomical and coverage was restricted to London, take up was initially slow. By 1995 penetration in the UK was just seven per cent, according to figures from the University of Salford's Computer Networking and Telecommunications Research Centre.
Even so, various manufacturers had begun vying for a share of the mobile handset market, including Phillips, Panasonic, Siemens, and Sony; however, it was names like Motorola and Nokia that began to take the market lead. In a very short space of time user adoption reached its tipping point, with penetration rising from 25 per cent in 1998, to 46 per cent the following year, when one mobile phone was sold in the UK every four seconds. By 2004, penetration exceeded 100 per cent.
Today, entrepreneurs proudly boast of being able to run their business from their mobile phone. It is the office in their pocket, providing them with instant connectivity to customers and colleagues, and access to key business documents and data, from virtually any location. And thanks to the sharp upturn in mobile technology in the last few years, the mobile phone is also the online shopping tool of choice among consumers.
Today, social media is the most powerful and influential form of communication, connecting millions of people all over the world, yet just over a decade ago, who would have believed that the fledgling Facebook, founded by university students initially for other university students, would become the leader of a global social networking phenomenon into which businesses invest significant amounts of their marketing spend?
Social media marketing campaigns now extend beyond Facebook and Twitter, in an increasingly mobile technology-driven world, to photo and video-sharing applications like Instagram and Snapchat. One of the big business benefits of SMM is that it allows companies to be more interactive and more approachable. For example, Twitter and Facebook users will tweet or post about their experiences with brands, both good and bad, while the brand has the ability to respond and show their willingness to help, in a very public arena, which has a huge influence on customer loyalty and on the new business that can be won off the back of a timely and appropriate response to customer feedback. Until social media became mainstream, such opportunities simply didn’t exist for businesses.
Hot on the heels of the digital revolution, comes the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution, accelerated by the wide availability of superfast connectivity and secure cloud computing. What will this mean for new businesses of the future? Driverless cars, voice-recognition systems; even robotic healthcare services are no longer the stuff of science fiction, and increasingly are accepted as part of everyday life. AI is already disrupting the transport, health, and finance sectors, but for an example of how it can be applied to business in a very practical way, look no farther than Amelia, an AI platform developed by US firm IPsoft that can understand, learn and interact like a human to make decisions, track customer emotions, and solve problems. For many people these new technologies represent more than just another turning point. In replicating human activity so effectively, they fear that AI could be an end point for business as we know it. Others, though, see it is a massive turning point, one that frees up human effort from the more mundane, repetitive business processes to focus on more innovative and lucrative ones.
Just as the humble public phone box was once seen as a business turning point, technology will continue to create many more in the years to come.