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Small Business Dilemma: are Big Solutions Hiding in plain sight?

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Above:Content Discovery App – River video Clip Introduction

An Unlikely Holy Grail: User Sophistication and the Will to Exist Online

In late 2018 a small firm was looking into opportunities in organizing an online co-op for small businesses (CSSinc), similar to the co-ops created by farmers during the great depression. Where else to start than a trade show of more than 1000 small businesses in Las Vegas. In an informal test, they checked all the web sites listed in the show directory as an indicator of the state of web sophistication among the participants.

Story Cover feature image by Joshua Chun 

Shockingly, nearly 90% were either primitive and barely functioning or not functioning at all, yielding a 404 error or “site not found”.

Read more: How Apple Created the Tech Universe

Naturally the 10% that were functioning, a few of which at a high level, were all the largest companies attending the show. With costs to set up, and even designing a company web site, at an all time low, why would so many pass up the opportunity to make use of this powerful tool?

‘This is Water’  and the internet dilemma that has swallowed the world

From The New Yorker:

In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College with a speech that is now one of his most read pieces. 

In it, he argues, gorgeously, against “unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” He begins with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

This oft quoted passage is about how the world around us can be easily misunderstood by lack of awareness. And, maybe, by the lack of any perceived need to notice what’s really going on. 

The two most shocking things about the anecdote above, regarding 90% of small businesses lack of internet presence (or sophistication), are how this could be the case after more than 20 years of the internet being at the center of commerce and, well, life, and what it says about the “water” we are all swimming in. 

Read more: Apple Search is Coming: Google, Facebook & Amazon Surveillance

2020 is the year that the internet became even more important for all our lives. Less obvious is that it is also the year that the problems and obstacles are more important than ever to overcome, and that starts with seeing the water we are all swimming in. 

The Social Dilemma’ is also a Small Business Dilemma

In this acclaimed documentary (available on Netflix) a lot of both problems and solutions focus on the dangers of the current giant-tech dominated internet environment on the “end-user” and the general public. 

The Social Dilemma Poster
The Social Dilemma on Netflix

While that sphere of influence is a serious and growing problem, it is the control and domination by a few massive companies, to the virtual exclusion of smaller businesses, that, to a large degree caused the sick, twisted inequitable and unfair system in the first place. 

The relative size imbalance is literally so massive that it is rendered incomprehensible, and, like water to the fish mentioned above, invisible. 

A happy shiny logo of, say, coca-cola, looks just as harmless (or menacing, depending on the perspective) as that of Amazon or Facebook, who may be hundreds of times larger in market-cap than the soft-drink giant with long history as a “big” American company. Size of this magnitude is impossible to conceive of by most of us.

But the perception of the giants that control the internet as harmless, or even beneficial and to be admired, is rapidly changing. Therein also lies the potential for probably the only hope of positive change for small business and for society in the US and across the globe. 

A Revolution of Perception is Required and already Underway

Part of the problem, one that is growing, admittedly, every day, is the sheer scale of the inequity and corruption. Why even try, as a small business, to go up against the giants that “own” the water we swim in?

Ultimately what is necessary is a sea-change (forgive the continued metaphor) within overall population, both consumers and small businesses. And that starts with the perception that it is the “people” that decide how and what the internet will be who will be “permitted” to interact. An Algorithm own as proprietary secret software by an internet behemoth? Or a decentralized more kaleidoscopic solution that was an inherent promise from the initial days of the internet’s creation?

The signs of change are all around. The “direct to consumer” trend that has produced massive success stories also paved the way for the emerging system of smaller companies being able to reach out directly and actually do business with customers with, sometimes, minimal involvement of the giants. 

The signs that this can work are gradually being seen – shopify’s success in offering software and services to businesses wanting to establish a direct connection to buyers is a growing trend. There are many other companies that have recognized the trend and are trying to ride this wave toward a different method of communication between businesses and so-called consumers. 

Here are some examples of companies that are taking a new approach to the way we communicate and interact online:

However, the ultimate driver of positive change in the internet will be the increased sophistication of users, both professional and at the individual level. 

User Sophistication and Trust: an unlikely but all-important Grail

Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, TikTok and more have all embraced direct in-app-shopping as a way to expand beyond content.  Even Google has started a program to allow buyers to purchase from search results without leaving the platform. While these initiatives are all coming from the giant tech firms themselves, they are, ultimately, sowing the seeds of their own demise. 

They are, in essence, teaching buyers to forego the now standard system of choosing between Amazon and “the rest” in online shopping. This choice, helped along by billions in losses to subsidize “impossibly low” prices plus free shipping paid for by Amazon’s loss-leader strategies, was never a fair or realistic one and created the massive, unsustainable imbalances in online commerce we see today. 

The massive and very real paranoia of the giant companies is based on the clear and deep understanding that the competition is always “1-click-away”, which is the unfulfilled promise of the internet in the first place.

D.L.

The greatest obstacle has never been the massive price-dumping schemes or even the sell-at-a-loss free shipping concept that kept buyers from having a second choice in e-commerce. It has been the lack of user sophistication of the sellers and the buyers in the online forum which prevented easier movement from one online option to another. 

The massive and very real paranoia of the giant companies is based on the clear and deep understanding that the competition is always “1 click away”, which is the unfulfilled promise of the internet in the first place.

So called “moats” and systems to block users from initiating and exercising choice are built-up and keep getting deeper and more complex. But sophisticated users can, and eventually will, easily just opt-out at any time, when alternatives that they prefer begin to proliferate. 

And there is a growing and invisible ocean that already exists all around us. As far-fetched as it may seem “the ocean we swim in” will one day be in no way similar to the deeply problematic one we swim in today and a thorough a change from the bottom up as well as the top down will, finally, bring about a new era in online communication and commerce. 


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