Since the internet was invented in the early 1990s by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, it has changed the way that the world operates. For one, it is a democratizing force. The Arab Spring of 2010 was enabled in part by the fact that the protesters involved were able to communicate with each other on their phones. The internet has also allowed for more people to educate themselves. Sites like Open Culture believe that the Internet is able to act as a tool to proliferate information, university courses and art and literary criticism for people who may otherwise not have access to these things. It allows for all sorts of conversations to take place between people who may not otherwise have been able to communicate. One of the potential problems with this, however, is that the internet facilitates niche communities to exist. If a person only reads certain websites they can find themselves in a sort of digital echo chamber where their own opinions, thoughts and arguments are repeated back to them and are therefore validated and encouraged. Whether this sort of thinking has led to a greater degree of partisanship in our online and social discourse is debatable. On a personal level, the internet has changed things too. Facebook now has an estimated 1.9 billion unique monthly users and has enabled people to make new friends, and form new romantic relationships while also resurrecting old ones. It is also cited in a third of divorces today, so it is not all good.
However, as a potential business opportunity, it is unparalleled. The global e-commerce market is thought to be worth about $22 trillion with m-commerce (transactions that take place on mobile devices) being worth an estimated $3.2 trillion. Remarkably, amongst small businesses in 2016, 46% did not have a website. Of the 54% which did, 23% of those websites were not mobile friendly. These statistics reveal that a lot of people have still not realized the potential of the internet as a tool for running a business. The reality of the modern world is that if someone needs information, they will likely turn to Google. The prevalence of phonebooks or business directories has steadily declined for exactly this reason. Not having a website is therefore to condemn yourself to only being able to do business with customers who are in your geographic vicinity. If you live in a major city, that still may be millions of people, but with 3.7 billion people now having access to the internet, there really is no reason not to embrace the digital revolution. Besides, the internet is also a great marketing tool.
The infrastructure of online commerce is such that if you are smart, you can easily advertise your business for a fraction of the cost that it would ordinarily cost. For example, with sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, if you manage to produce viral content, you can reach millions of people within a few hours. Besides, the cost of using these websites to promote yourself or your business is nothing. The only problem is that everyone else is trying to capture the zeitgeist too so it can sometimes be a rather crowded market. It is especially important when you are advertising online to be sensitive to the cultural considerations of the people who may see it. With the internet, that is people from nearly every country on earth. It can often be quite expensive to plan, create and launch an advertising campaign and if it is not successful, that money will be wasted. The recent Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner created a backlash because it was thought to co-opt and infantilize a political struggle that is real to a lot of marginalized people. Using that to sell your products is rather distasteful anyway, but it is especially embarrassing when the corporate desire to fit in and appeal to young people is so blatant and unsophisticated. There are so many examples of international marketing campaigns that were not cognizant enough of the cultures in which they wished to expand. However, being sensitive to these things is not just a moral issue, it could help prevent you losing the potential revenue of massive markets around the world.
There are particular benefits to running an online only business though. First, with retail companies, in particular, there are a lot of serious expenses that have to be met in order to start trading. Opening a brick and mortar store is expensive because the store itself needs to be designed in such a way that it is appealing to the customers as well as safe and compliant with lots of different health and safety codes. There is then the issue of hiring friendly, competent staff that have a working knowledge of the products and also how to deal with customers. The cost of a warehouse for stock is also important. When you run an online store, you will still need a warehouse, but you can save lots of money on running an actual store. Your overheads will be a lot lower, and you will, therefore, be able to sell your products for reduced prices as well. One of the costs that online businesses have to worry about though is the sometimes startling prices of shipping products to customers. While most online purchases come with a shipping fee, they do not always cover the entire cost of sending the package, especially if it is an international delivery so the e-commerce company will have to subsidize part of the transaction. They obviously consider this a feasible option because they anticipate future business with the customer. However, this is not something on which you can always rely.
There are particular security issues of which you need to be aware as well. When a customer inputs their sensitive financial information into the payment gateway on your website, they are taking a risk. The threat of non-ethical hackers compromising your computer systems and stealing that information is real. In fact, it has happened to a lot of major companies. It is serious because this sort of thing can completely ruin your reputation with your customers. If they cannot trust you with their sensitive information, they simply will not shop with you. If you fail to put the necessary measures in place to protect yourself against this sort of threat, you may find that you face legal problems. It is your ethical responsibility to protect this information. However, it is not always just outside forces which you should protect yourself against. A poll conducted in 2011 found that 60% of people steal from a company that they are leaving. 65% stole email lists, 45% took non-financial business information, 39% took customer contact details, 35% took employee records, and 19% were bold enough to steal financial information. These are corporate crimes, and if you think you were the subject of fraud, you should consider speaking to a whistleblower attorney. Setting a precedent and clearly demonstrating that you do not condone such behavior is important, but you should also be aware that losing this information can seriously affect how well you are able to compete with other businesses. You have legal recourses which you should use.
Finally, whatever you choose to sell, you need to make your products unique. People can often be indecisive when they are working around a mall because there are so many different products available to them. However, when it comes to the internet, there are many more. Managing to stand out in this environment is not easy, but it can be immensely profitable, a fact demonstrated by the CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos now being worth an estimated $84 billion.
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