Ajaz  Ahmed Ajaz Ahmed | 05 Sep 2019

Just 20 short years ago, the company I founded, Freeserve, launched to an unsuspecting world. At the time, very few people in the UK had used the internet, so few that Microsoft didn’t bundle a browser with Windows. What was the point? Hardly anyone was on the internet.

Fast-forward to today: now we don’t have to plug a wire into the phone socket, your computer doesn’t make that funny noise to log on and you can even use your mobile phone. The internet is everywhere and is part of our daily lives.

“New companies have stolen the food from right under the noses of old companies without them even knowing”

But, boy, has it made fools of people.

New companies have come and stolen the food from right under the noses of old companies without them even knowing it. In a short space of time, start-ups have made gigantic fortunes, while others have lost unbelievable amounts of money.

But the sad thing is, for 20 years, some companies have continually talked about the internet and still done nothing.

The only thing they’ve done is hired consultants who are good at acting and telling people what they want to hear.

Afraid of change

What consultants don’t tell you is that people are afraid of change. Because if they tell you that, they won’t get paid. I’ve no idea what was being discussed in the boardrooms of Asda, Morrisons and M&S Food as the directors watched Tesco and Sainsbury’s vans shooting up and down the roads in front of them.

Many companies haven’t been successful because they don’t pivot and progress; they carry on majoring in minor things until it’s too late.

At the beginning, the internet was a low-stakes place and then it suddenly changed, which meant people had to respond quickly to trends, they had to launch new services, they had to listen to customers’ problems and, most importantly, they had to find where their old customers were now spending their money.

I think many people are afraid of what they’ll find when they start looking at their businesses. So, stop asking customers what they want and create something that customers don’t even know they need yet.

We can learn a lot from a company like Apple. I was at the launch of the iPod and later the iPhone. I didn’t know I needed those products until Steve Jobs revealed them to the world then suddenly, I wanted to buy one. Stop considering new products, services or ideas as a threat and try to take advantage of them.

From low stakes to ultimate risk

What’s changed and made the internet turn from a low-stakes arena into something that if you don’t get right, you’ll fall off the cliff?

The first thing is that successful companies now know about good design, navigation and technology. The best sites are so easy to navigate that you can find anything within a few clicks, and customers can’t understand why they keep going back to them over and over again.

The other thing is the mobile phone.

“Stop just using the internet every day and ask: why do I visit some sites more than others?”

The mobile phone sucks us in and feeds our addictive desires. On the train, on the bus and even in my house, people are addicted to these devices. If you don’t understand this, you are missing a large part of the equation. To stop making mistakes, dare to ask the most straightforward questions. You won’t sound like a fool because if you don’t get it, your customers won’t get it.

Look at other successful companies and try and figure out how they’ve done it and learn from them. Stop just using the internet every day and ask: why do I visit some sites more than others? Look at them like a customer would.

What are the next 20 years going to be like? I haven’t got a clue – because if I did, I wouldn’t be sharing it with you.

This article appeared in Retail Week 16th August 2019.