My Clues to Commerce

By the time you read this, I’m afraid you’ll have missed my appearance as a speaker at the Internet World show in New York.

The title was “Clues to Commerce,” but I wasn’t spinning a mystery yarn. I was hoping to hold a revival meeting on behalf of some simple verities most miss in the rush of web buzzwords.

From Tom Standage’s “The Victorian Internet,” I took what I call Edison’s Clue. Edison came to New York in 1871 as a telegraph operator, and after fixing an early stock ticker figured out that the key to his time wasn’t telegraphy, but electricity going through a wire.

In our time the key isn’t HTML, or really the Internet, but universal connectivity. The Internet was born of people forgetting money and going for something that served everyone. All big ideas are like that, and can be described in one sentence made of short words.

Right now the key technology isn’t the HTML or the Internet, but databases. All the most successful sites today are just interfaces to databases. The search engines, the big stores, the best content sites, all of them share the same interface — a search box. The key to making big sites better is the technology behind the search box.

It’s also vital that you remember the ground war. Most e-commerce still requires that something be sent somewhere. Dropping procurement and fulfillment costs will make the difference between long-term success and failure for most web businesses. A football analogy fits here — it’s basic blocking-and-tackling, not a gimmickry scheme, which makes you a consistent winner.

Spam is in the eye of the beholder. Don’t ever confuse tolerance with attention, or attention with approval. Permission must constantly be renewed, and upgraded, if it’s to be worth anything. Seth Godin’s “Permission Marketing” may be the most misunderstood, and misquoted, book of the decade. Before you act in its name, read the whole thing.

Don’t let the Internet stock boom fool you. Fashions change. I went to college during the Houston oil boom, and anyone who saw the wheels come off that one was seared forever. Only the strongest survived, and all booms end. Be humble, and work for the long term. To see tomorrow don’t read a manual on anything, which only tells you about yesterday and today – read a book like Evan Schwartz’ “Digital Darwinism” that makes you think about tomorrow.

The halls of Internet World are completely missing the Next Big Thing, the digital marketplaces and virtual distributors that represent the next gain in productivity. It’s not Penton’s fault, but the plain fact is that if you want to trade oranges, textiles or oil you talk to farmers, clothing makers and oil men. The big money, in other words, is out there, and not in here. Find an industry’s folkways from the inside and make sure you have the buy-in and participation of insiders, before you go to market anywhere.

Finally, try this exercise. Get out a clean sheet of paper, or a simple index card, and write down one truth about the Internet you think will survive 10 years. Read that truth out loud to a whole group of people. The best way to know if what you’ve written makes sense is to read it out loud, and the key to the Internet is human interaction. It’s not about connecting computers, but people.

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