Commentary: Your Business in 2020

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In June, 2010, Steve Jobs introduced the latest version of the iPhone. During his presentation of the new device's video chat function, he mentioned a memory of his childhood; watching The Jetsons. This, he said, was what he envisioned the future to be like. He dreamed of technology like the iPhone 4 that would allow us to video chat in the palm of our hands. And now, it's a reality.

That got me thinking.

We all dream of the future. Usually these dreams are fantastic visions of flying cars and Rosey the Robot. But how often do you sit down and think of the future of your business and your industry? Once a year? Once a month? How about every day?

Steve Jobs and Apple have experienced wild success — and massive profits — because of a keen eye on the future. Think about the leap the iPhone made. Before it, phones were just phones. Now, the expectations we have for “mobile devices” is much higher. We expect them to help us communicate, locate information quickly and efficiently, help us preserve our precious memories with photos and video, and keep us connected with the physical world around us. These expectations are real — and so are consumers’ expectations of your business.

We live in fast times. It can feel overwhelming to try to stay one step ahead. But it doesn’t have to be. What we need is a plan — a method to keep things in perspective while focusing one eye on the future.

Start by looking inside your industry. Subscribe to your competitors’ RSS feeds and check in once every day to see if any innovation is bubbling up.

But don’t stop there.

As an online retailer, Amazon.com and eBay are not likely your closest competitors. But they are proven leaders in the online retail industry. You might never come close to the success of these two enterprises but there is much to be learned from them. You might be surprised how often what seems to be a complex innovation can be adapted to your business and website.

As a publisher or online news source, CNN.com might seem light years ahead. But look at a couple of their “revolutionary” ideas. They launched iReport several years ago; encouraging readers to submit their own news stories, videos and photos. Can you do this? Of course you can. In fact, you could have done this before CNN.com. What’s more, as a small business you often have the luxury of innovating at a much faster pace than “big business.” Take advantage of that.

But let’s take a step back.

Just as important as it is to dream big is to know what’s attainable and realistic. If you pay close attention to the business of the Web (and by reading Website Magazine, I can only assume that you do) it can be very easy to get swept up in every latest, greatest trend and technology hacked together by every college dropout and supported by over-eager venture capitalists. Remember, this is your business. Just because mobile or the social Web is discussed ad nauseam by the “thought leaders” of the Web doesn’t mean they are the future of your business. They could play a significant role but might there be more pressing issues? Is there room for innovation outside of these areas? Of course — there always is.

You know your industry better than anyone else. You will help decide the future of the industry. But remember, so will your consumers. They are empowered more than any other consumer generation prior. So, while deciding the future, look in the present and listen to what consumers are saying. “If you build it they will come” works sometimes but not every time.

What will your business look like in 2020? That’s up to you and your consumers. But one thing is for certain — the future is right around the corner. Stay sharp.

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