Virtual1 (en-GB)

There isn’t anything there

I drive a car that isn’t the easiest thing to park. At least I don’t find it easy. It is old and rusty and has none of those new fangled parking sensors or cameras. It has mirrors and my rough knowledge of where each corner is. And it is also too tall to fit under most multi-storey car parks. But I kind of love it and like anybody with a passion for something impractical, I make allowances.

So it was with a certain delight that I installed a new car parking app that I had been recommended by Joel, our Customer Experience & Ops Director. I can now find driveways or surface carparks that the owners want to rent out for a few hours, rather than rely on finding a meter that isn’t going to bankrupt me or a car park with a roof I can squeeze under. And something occurred to me. The app developers don’t actually own the end product.

Like a lot of successful Internet businesses, the customer interface for acquiring, configuring and paying for the service is provided by somebody detached from the actual service provider. They never touch it, see it and may not even use it. They are simply an agent, acting as a go-between. The thing you pick on their website is an intangible collection of ideas that only get realised much later. By somebody else. Other example are Uber, who don’t drive taxis, JustEat who don’t cook food and AirBnb, who don’t own any holiday homes. Ebay probably doesn’t own all that second-hand stuff on its site either. It was the art of the ”dotcom” companies that they could do that. Make money out of nothing. But it all fell apart in the 1990s because when it all came down to brass tacks, there was nothing there but a lot of lines of code.

So the real “bricks and mortar” businesses started to embrace the web and websites were used to help sell stuff that was a pain to get hold of but themselves were more of a concept that a physical thing. Tickets and the like. It took a little while but soon pretty much any serious business had a website and most of them had a retail mechanism through it.

Amazon, is a prime example of an organisation bucking this trend but ultimately they started as an online bookshop and had trouble as they grew until they invested in actual bricks and mortar to store all those books and then all the other stuff they started to sell. Amazon though now sells other people’s stuff, because they realise that the general public is actually quite happy for somebody to sit between them and the person providing the stuff they want so long as they actually make it easier. And the people wanting to sell stuff don’t want to have to advertise and lure customers to their own, probably poorly implemented site when they can sit on the coat tails of all the experience Amazon has built up over the years.

And that’s where we are now. The new wave of techno illuminati are crafting beautiful websites to deliver wonderfully simple ideas that make a range of services available from people that can’t or simply never thought to sell them. Each one a business with not a huge amount of capital investment. Instead just some smart people thinking a little bit differently. And each time I find a new one, I say what a lot of people probably say “I wish I had thought of that”.

I just need to think of the next big thing. And I don’t mean a new car….