There’s no doubt about it – things change fast on the Internet.
A decade ago, everyone was talking about how the web would create millions of new and unheard-of careers that took people out of traditional offices and into a new, online workplace.
It did that (and then some!).
While it’s still true that the Internet is creating a boatload of new jobs, there are also more threats to this type of career than ever before. And, as someone who runs a web company and has been in this space since college, I find myself thinking about it a lot.
Most readers of this site are either currently running a web-based business (blog, store, company, etc.) or are actively trying to do so and, while I’m no authority on this topic, I thought it might be something useful to chat about.
Don’t worry, there’s a bit of a silver lining at the end of each section.
1. The explosion of the Internet in the developing world
In the past five years the Internet has exploded in the third world. And while a lot of people still don’t have access, the numbers of those that do is truly staggering.
While China doesn’t reach quite as high as the USA, we have to remember the population sizes and how many people this equates to. In China alone that blue line represents about 650 million people.
This is a wonderful, wonderful thing. It has helped to pull so many people out of poverty and has spread information, knowledge, and funny cat videos to all corners of the globe.
But the days of us in the relatively privileged West coasting along are pretty much over. The competition is now much bigger than it was even a few years ago – and that means it could become harder to create new things or find a distinctive place in a market that is already flooded.
The positive side of this (other than the whole “millions of people out of poverty” thing) is that there is a bigger audience than ever before. Whatever online business you are involved in now has the potential to reach people that it never could before.
2. Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence is here and it’s getting smarter a lot faster than predicted.
In fact, one blogger recently predicted that Artificial Intelligence will render the idea of “working for money” as totally obsolete in the very near future.
It’s tempting to get frightened by advances in AI – it happens so fast that a lot of us (me included) struggle to wrap our heads around the potential consequences.
But it’s important that we adapt.
It’s nothing new: historically a lot of businesses have been left behind as technology changed.
The 1800’s saw Western Union make possibly the worst decision in business history by rejecting a patent for a little thing called the telephone.
More recently, a lot of small businesses struggled as the Internet grew and things became digital (think CDs and record labels, phone books, etc.).
We don’t know where AI is going to take us, but a lot of the experts in those articles above seem to focus on the idea that if your job involves little cognitive creativity, or is very repetitive, then it’s likely that a computer will step in very soon, as is happening with call centers already.
Try to think about opportunities that require social interaction, a deeper understanding of human relationships and culture, and also ways in which your existing business might benefit from a mix of both AI and human-based work.
Another spin is that it’s likely that AI will lead to new types of jobs that we haven’t even thought of yet. We just need to figure them out and adapt as early as possible.
3. Security issues
If you work in the online space you are probably already very familiar with the myriad of issues relating to cyber security.
As time goes by, the volume and type of threats that website owners have to deal with only gets worse. Some of them are politically motivated, others are done purely for financial gain.
My solution? Try not to lose sleep over it.
In the past I used to get really stressed out until I realized that that wasn’t helping me solve the problem at all.
Now I follow some strict security procedures like using a VPN, avoiding public WiFi, keeping very complicated passwords and two-factor authentication enabled, keeping software up to date, and making regular backups of my sites, IP blocking, etc.
The truth is that if someone really wanted to hurt our online businesses there wouldn’t be much we could do about it. I do my best to try and educate readers of this site about how to be as safe as possible, but beyond that all I can do is hope that we’re not targets.
4. Rapid platform change (including government intervention)
One of the characteristics of the Internet has always been rapid change.
For example, if you look at how quickly MySpace rose to fame and then fell away to obscurity, you’ll recognize a potential threat to any business that puts all of its eggs in to one basket.
But it’s not just about a prioritized website failing, it’s also about the introduction of so many new platforms that you get confused or suckered into wasting time on all of them.
For example, in the social networking world we have seen Snapchat, Vine, Instagram and Periscope all introduce some sort of viral video recording feature in short succession.
And they all did pretty well.
Another (perhaps more serious) aspect to the idea of rapid change is laws and regulations that are passed by governments that could have horrible, unintended consequences that the lawmakers simply didn’t perceive.
If you look at something like Net Neutrality you’ll see how quickly a poorly crafted law could affect every (small) business on the net. Here’s President Obama talking about it:
It’s a good idea to try and stay informed about what your local government is planning to do in regards to these types of issues and, if you are so inclined, write letters if you believe something is about to go wrong.
One advantage of some of these rapid platform changes is that, if you’re early and unique, you have an opportunity to tap into a big audience and maintain that lead while late adopters struggle to get traction. Figure out what platforms are useful to you and make sure you keep testing.
5. Human error
The last thing that I wanted to talk about is something that we all face every day – our own screw ups.
When you run a business you are inevitably faced with a lot of opportunity costs. For example, if you work for yourself that means that you have given up on the possibility of a full time career in some other (perhaps more stable) job.
Similarly, when you devote time to one project or income stream and it turns out to be a bad one you can wind up in some financial trouble.
Diversification is often hailed as the solution to this (have 10 income streams at once), but that presents another opportunity cost in that you can’t devote your resources to one product or stream that might really take off and instead need to focus on lots of small bits and pieces.
Risk is an inevitable part of a successful business on the Internet as much as it is anywhere else. Just like in stock market trading, some web entrepreneurs will embrace an aggressive (perhaps grey-hat) style that only lasts a few months but nets millions. Others prefer a more stable, long-term approach that is less stressful and possibly more beneficial to the community at large.
The major take away for me is to try and learn from the mistakes of others and not repeat them. But, if they do happen, don’t be discouraged and just remember that every successful person (in business and in charity, politics, etc.) goes through some rough patches.
What do you think?
I hope I haven’t scared anyone too much with this article. My intention was just to introduce some ideas in the hope that it helps us be better prepared for any changes that may happen. I’d really love to know whether you agree or disagree with any of these points, and whether or not I’ve perhaps missed something important.
Please leave a comment below and let me know.
Top image © Stevanovicigor at Dreamstime.com.