10 years on – life with broadband

June 8, 2010

Photo credit: Theo R

It was exactly 10 years ago to the day that I first got broadband installed at home and I wanted to commemorate that momentous day. I went from a 56kbps modem, which would have to make a call each time I wanted to get online, to always-on broadband at 512kbps.

On paper it was ten times faster, but this was warp-speed compared to dial-up. The experience was a complete step-change. Imagine you had only ever had a black and white TV set and then one day someone came in and gave you colour with full HD. Like that, but more so!

On the 8th June 2000 three NTL engineers visited my flat to install, and then marvel at this new high-speed internet (it was so new none of them had experienced it before).

My experience as a broadband early adopter tells the story of the excess of the dot com / technology-media-telecoms (TMT) bubble with many promises made, and in the end a lot of investors and companies left with shattered dreams.

I was living in Glasgow at the time, and four different telcos had all been promising they would launch broadband in 2000. The TMT bubble burst in March 2000, but the investments and preparation for launching broadband to the public had been many years in the making.

The contenders:

1. BT, using ADSL over your traditional copper phone line. They eventually launched in August 2000, but with very limited availability on just a small number of local exchanges.

2. NTL (now Virgin Media), using their fibre optic cable TV network.

3. Scottish Telecom, using their Fixed Radio Access technology from Ionica. Sadly as Ionica finally closed operations in 1999 it left ST with an unsupported technology and broadband was never launched wirelessly, and in fact their entire FRA business was closed soon after.

4. Atlantic Telecom, using Israeli military technology. Unfortunately they went into administration in 2001 and what could have been a decent business died due to over-expansion and poor investment decisions.

Looking back it’s amazing what has happened since, and the internet is still a wild-west, winner-takes-all environment. As Gary Vee says, “the internet is still a teenager and hasn’t even had sex yet.”

The opportunities are still huge, and the costs, both for internet access, as well as infrastructure costs to build a business online, are now much lower. YouTube is only five years old but yet it seems like it has been around forever.

Ten years since I first got broadband we have near 100% broadband coverage across the whole of the UK. Average speeds are around 4 Mbps, around 100 times faster than you typically got on dial-up, but still well short of the world leader, Korea with average speeds of 20 Mbps. The fastest broadband speeds in the UK are 50Mbps from Virgin Media, but where will be in another ten years and what revolutionary new businesses and business models are yet to be enabled by the internet?


Book review: Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

June 1, 2010

Tony HsiehZappos is the online retailer of shoes and clothing that was last year purchased by Amazon for $1.2Bn. They are known for their incredible service and their unique culture.

As a member of the Zappos Insights programme I received an advance copy of their CEO’s new book, aptly named “Delivering Happiness”. I thought as someone who has visited Zappos, met the management team, and read and listened to dozens of articles and presentations I would not have much else to learn; I was wrong.

The initial part of the book focuses on Tony Hsieh‘s childhood and background before Zappos. To understand Zappos you have to understand Tony, and the book certainly gives a greater insight into him as a person. Unlike the stereotype of a what a businessman should be, money is not his prime motivation.

My favourite example comes from when his first business, Internet Link Exchange, was bought by Microsoft for $265M. Tony’s share meant he was due to get $40M, but 20% of that – $8M – relied on staying on for 12 months after the sale. During the few weeks after the sale – sleep walking at Microsoft –  that he realised he would “stop chasing the money, and start chasing the passion” and walked out, and on the $8M golden handcuffs. Why? Simply because the happiest times in his life had never been related to money and he already had more than enough of that.

Another example of new information is the rollercoaster ride of what it was like struggling to grow Zappos. Although it was successful, raising additional venture capital to fund that growth proved impossible after the dot com crash in 2001. Redundancies were made, salaries cut, and Tony personally sold every asset he had, ploughing everything back into Zappos. This was a huge gamble, but underlines the faith and passion he had for this unique business. Looking back it must seem like a distant memory, but it was clearly a difficult time.

The outsider might wonder why all this information, warts and all is shared. The answer is that Tony just wants to help people, when I asked him that question he said, “when you find something really useful and helpful don’t you want to share it with people so they can make use of it too?”

It’s not about content of what they do, it’s more about why they do things that gives Zappos their competitive edge:

“If we want to continue to stay ahead of our competition, we must continually change and keep them guessing. Others can copy our images, our shipping, and the overall look of our website, but they cannot copy our people, our culture, or our service.”

Finally, I found the answer to one of the questions I have been asked most about Zappos, which is what is their policy on using Twitter, which is used by hundreds of their staff. It is very simple: “just be real, and use your best judgement”. That plus the Zappos ten core values keeps everyone aligned.

Delivering Happiness is published on June 7th 2010. For more info visit the Delivering Happiness website.

Meetups are happening all round the world to celebrate the launch so if you want to speak to like-minded Zappos fans, or others who are interested in building amazing company cultures, or want to know more about the path to happiness, then make it happen with other people in your city.