The week of the Facebook IPO offers a useful reminder that many of the longer-term forces changing the face of business are driven by or at least inspired by technology. Having already transformed communications and entertainment, the internet and related technologies are changing beyond all recognition the way that much of business operates.
This is a behavioural revolution that has probably had its equivalent in history’s previous economic transformations. In terms of the adoption of technology, we could be at a similar stage to those early industrialists in the British Midlands who developed all kinds of machines in the wake of the invention of steam power. They were not household names and their businesses hardly made the history books but they powered the Industrial Revolution.
In the same way, large numbers of companies have appeared on the back of the development of the Internet. They may not be as well known or as exciting as the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple or indeed Facebook, but they play crucial roles in powering and exploiting the technology – as well as enabling businesses of all sorts to operate.
Not all of these businesses will survive. However, it is more predictable that the activities they represent will endure because they align with embedded long-term business trends. This makes them worth watching, not just as potential Facebooks of the future, but because they provide illustrations of what a future business world might be like.
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To depict this landscape of the future, the business intelligence network Index B has assembled a shortlist of 25 companies from around the globe who are ‘Ones to Watch’. Each company is an exemplar of a bigger and broader business trend yet collectively they also mirror the true business landscape of today. This is a world in which smaller companies are the more dominant species.
So what sort of firms made the final cut and what types of trend do they illustrate?
1. THE INTERNET GROWS UP
Much has been written about the transition in use of the internet from serving communication and entertainment needs to now tackling more functional, less sexy areas. Three of the firms in ‘Ones to Watch’ demonstrate this admirably. Evernote offers an ingenious way of capturing fragmented scraps of information that might otherwise escape our memory, Dropbox has simplified the business of accessing the things we keep online, whilst Groupspaces makes the core tasks of organising work and leisure activities less of a chore.
2. COMMERCE GOES MOBILE
With the Smartphone set to become the most iconic device of the second decade of the 21st Century, companies involved in mobile applications might be expected to feature. Proxama is one of many firms involved in turning mobiles into payment devices, yet recognises this involves multiple customisable solutions rather than one killer app. Elsewhere, Metaio is a pioneer and leader in the game-changing technology of augmented reality, which allows mobile users to access, understand and enjoy digital content overlaid on the physical world.
3. SUSTAINABILITY IS LONGER LASTING
Will anxiety about recession push anxieties about our environment to the back of the class? Maybe carbon emissions seem less important when debt and currency crises stalk the globe. Fortunately, the ideas and economics of sustainability are more entrenched than they once were. Closed Loop Recycling has repurposed 20% of the UK’s plastic bottles and turned them into food-grade plastics; Whipcar has become the world’s fastest growing car club in the space of 18 months, enabling car owners to share vehicles with neighbours when they’re not in use, and Sequana Medical has designed a way to combat liver disease that cuts out chunks of unnecessary clinical time.
4. RE-ENGINEERING CAPITALISM
Whether the challenge is finding ways to combine profitability with business principles (LRN), develop more equitable banks (BankSimple), simpler ways of funding entrepreneurs (CrowdCube) or simply businesses with better stakeholder terms (Mitie), it is clear that rethinking the way companies make and use money is now a trend rather than a series of isolated instances. As a lack of faith in the financial establishment becomes more widespread, we can expect to see further types of innovation in the ways that companies access and use money – invariably using greater transparency as part of the process. Such developments will shape new types of financial services.
5. ONE-MAN EMPIRES STRIKE BACK
In years gone by one-man businesses were often derided for not being serious ventures. Yet there are now more entrepreneurs with multiple businesses and technology is helping them cast far longer shadows to extend their reach and influence. As a result, the tools they use become more sophisticated. Witness the personal CRM software of CubeSocial, which helps individuals manage their professional relationships more adroitly than many corporations. At the same time, technology is becoming easier than ever to deploy. See Basekit’s software, which has slashed the cost and time involved in creating websites, making them affordable and practical for the smallest of small companies.
6. COMMUNITY GAINS PURPOSE
Finally the C word. Whilst over-use of the idea of community has become a trend in its own right, the business models that exemplify online communities are planting deeper roots. At the more rarefied end of this spectrum companies like Kaggle provide a platform for data miners and researchers to collaborate on solutions to scientific challenges. At the more prosaic end, there are firms like Songkick, which enable music lovers to keep track of live events and extend their audience participation. All of them benefit from the increasing influence of social networks on the way we live and work yet equally they extend the functionality of online communities and by definition their commercial impact.
The complete report is available as a download from www.myindexb.com. Companies featured within the report are also periodically covered by Index B’s weekly guide to the trends of the forthcoming business decade, www.futureofbusinessblog.com.
John Owrid is CEO of Index B, one of the first business research companies to use crowd sourcing approaches to generate business information and intelligence, and Roger Trapp is a leading business commentator and journalist who has covered management and enterprise for many years.