We’ve seen the rise and fall of empires, dot-com booms and busts, tidal shifts in how business is done, a pile of cat videos, and more memes and stupid gifs than “Star Wars Kid” could shake that broom handle at. It’s so ubiquitous in our daily existence, it’s hard to remember a time before the Internet. So, let’s take a quick tour down a binary memory lane to cull six key business lessons we can all learn on the anniversary of the World Wide Web.
Depending on which date you want to use, there are multiple potentials for the true birth of the Internet. In this case, we are looking at March 12, 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee created the Uniform Resource Locator (the humble URL) to give Internet content an identifiable address. Thus, the sporadic attachments of the early Internet (and ARPANET) were connected, structure was given to the void without form, and the World Wide Web sprang into life.
(Editor’s Note: Fun Internet History Fact: Berners-Lee has said the double slash in “https://www.tigerpaw.com” was completely arbitrary, and there didn’t need to be two slashes. Now, he “regret(s) that the syntax is so clumsy.” He would go back and change it if he could.)
Considered one of the godfathers of the Internet, the creation of the World Wide Web would eventually earn Berners-Lee a knighthood, as he is now Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
And now, with its 30-year anniversary come and gone, it’s hard to believe so much Internet history is behind us. But as any astute student of history will tell you, there are lessons in those (web)pages. And, as Churchill quoted George Santayana, if you don’t learn from history, you are condemned to repeat it; or, in this case, you may be condemned to an endless 404 client error.
So let’s take a look at six key business lessons you can learn from the history of the Internet, the rise and fall of digital giants and binary kingdoms, and the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web.
Things change: roll with the punches
The Internet is now old enough for history to recognize individual eras of the web. Just think back to what you were doing on the web 30 years ago — were you even on the Internet 30 years ago? How about 20 years ago? Think of how much has changed.
GeoCities was once considered the pinnacle of website design, you showed your friends funny videos from eBaum’s World (wow, that’s still a thing?), and all of your cool friends had a Hotmail account for electronic mail.
Now GeoCities and Microsoft WordArt are remembered as terrible throwback designs, you share YouTube links for videos, and you have a dedicated business email or Gmail account (or you text, or have a Slack workspace, or any number of other options).
Things change. The only way you survive is if you roll with the punches. Don’t let technology drown you out. Be nimble and flexible and open to learning new things.
So much knowledge, so little time: Strive for continual learning
We live in an age where each of us walk around with a magical rectangle in our pocket that allows us to access the sum total of human knowledge. Not that long ago you would have been hailed as a wizard or a witch and burned at the stake if you showed off your smartphone.
And how often do you use the Internet to actually advance yourself? There is definitely a time and a place for sharing videos of cute puppies, but don’t forget to take advantage of learning from the Internet. Check out a “How To” or DIY video on YouTube, read blogs and articles about your industry, follow popular thought leaders on LinkedIn to learn from them, dive into a free online course to get a certification or expand your skills.
Booms and busts: Even the mighty can fall, diversify
If there’s one clear lesson from the Internet, it’s that even the mighty can fall. Think of how many big companies have come and gone over the past 30 years on the web. How many of them have disappeared, filed for bankruptcy, or are shadows of their former glory? (How’s that Enron or Theranos stock doing?)
AOL was once King: now it’s a cautionary tale. These single-threaded digital businesses have done just as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts when a disruption comes along in their industry: they die out. They struggle when even a minor hiccup hits their business flow.
The solution is business convergence. Diversify your offerings and your products to ancillary and overlapping services to take a larger share of your own marketplace. Ensure you have solid revenue streams coming in by setting up recurring revenue contracts that keep the money flowing so you can weather any storm (digital or otherwise) that comes your way.
Carved in digital stone: Once it’s out there, it’s out there
The Internet has grown to a size that is hard to fathom. New tools and algorithms (and people with too much free time) mean it’s nearly impossible to remain anonymous on the web. Unlike your private ICQ chats from the 90s, don’t presume the things you post online are confidential.
Be careful what you put out there. Not just for your company, but for yourself. If you are a business leader (or an aspiring business leader), these things can follow you for years. You represent your company — doubly so if you are a c-suite leader — and you’d be surprised how much that random, late-night social media post could impact you in the days and years to come.
Both individuals and brands have been toppled by having something posted in haste bite them in the butt later, only to fight through a massive social media horror story. Don’t become another casualty of having no filter.
Things change II: Learn from history and your mistakes
When you see those Internet horror stories of corporate missteps, it’s tempting to just revel in the schadenfreude of it all, but take the time to learn a lesson from those mistakes — learn from both history and your own mistakes. There’s always a lesson for the astute observer.
You know your business, and you’ve likely seen competitors make the same blunder over and over. Learn from those mistakes and your own. When you see these catastrophic business fails online, have a good laugh, but then ask yourself if you have the proper plans and processes in place to avoid the same fate. If not, get your team onboard and realign your business strategies.
The power of digital downtime: Learn to unplug
The biggest danger of being so connected, is being so connected. In its 30 years the Internet has become an indispensable part of our lives and how we do business. That can make it difficult to unplug, but not impossible.
Stop checking your email, turn off your alerts, dodge that Slack notification — walk away from the computer and put down your phone. De-stress, stop trying to multitask at all hours of the day, and be sure to enjoy the occasional digital detox.
You don’t have to go off the grid and live the life of a hermit, but there are marked benefits of putting down the smartphone and picking up a book. Learn to unplug, recharge, and then you’ll be ready to take on the next 30 years of the web. It’s not going anywhere.
We’ve shared 6 key business lessons you can learn from the Internet’s 30th anniversary in this blog post. Since one of them was “Strive for continual learning”, what better time to start than right now? Check out this free guide on 8 essential tips to grow your technology SMB.