How to get rich: Help the Internet. All of it. Forget your target customer profile. The biggest rewards lie in solving ubiquitous problems.

In my line of work, I get exposed to a lot of “overnight” success stories. The air quotes are necessary here, because close to zero of these stories were truly composed overnight. They were more likely the result of a years-long gestation period, punctuated by demonstrations of heroic resolve by the protagonists in the face of crushing (and often repeated) failure.

But one thing has repeatedly struck me about the online successes that have grown into household names, and that’s the sheer diversity of their userbases. The largest products and services on the internet lay claim to the time, attention and dollars of members of virtually every ethnic group on Earth, every income bracket, every age cohort, country and culture. They’re, We’re all using services like Facebook, Google, etc. every day. Basically, if someone has an internet connection (which describes about 3.2 billion people, at last count), they’re likely using one or more of these products.

This photo, “Diversity of London” is copyright (c) 2006 Jon Rawlinson and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
They’ve all posted photos of their lunch on Instagram. (Source: Jon Rawlinson)

Now, this isn’t to say that more niche products and companies don’t have a great impact on their intended users – Salesforce, for example, isn’t for everyone, and they’re still doing just fine. But successes like the current trifecta of internet giants stand in stark rebellion against the age-old maxim that you have to know your customer profile like the back of your hand in order to do well. After all, what does a typical Facebook user look like? Where would you find an ideal Google user? If your product provides broad enough value, or you’re solving a ubiquitous enough problem, it seems that knowing your customer profile isn’t really important.

As a result, the product development demon that lives in my head has come to a realization about how to find opportunities to build products with huge growth potential, so I’m going to share it with you in case it helps spark some ideas. Also, because the product development demon that lives in my brain gnaws the inside of my skull when I don’t let it out for fresh air occasionally.

Anyway, here goes…

Dude: the internet is really just one giant saas product

mindblown

Woah, woah, I know – stupendously grandstanding statement alert. But consider that perhaps I’m not just trying to get featured on the cover of Wired by saying something fake-profound for a sec – the internet exhibits all the same traits of an individual Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product:

“SaaS is a software licensing and delivery model in which software is licensed on a subscription basis and is centrally hosted. It is sometimes referred to as “on-demand software”. SaaS is typically accessed by users using a thin client via a web browser.” ~ Wikipedia

Let’s break this definition of SaaS down a bit, and see if it diverges from the internet in general:

“Software…” is just code – I think we can all agree that the internet has spot of that, here and there, right?
“…licensed on a subscription basis…” – The majority of us pay a monthly fee for the privilege of internet access
“…centrally hosted…” – Last I checked, the internet is currently located on just one planet in the solar system.
“…via a web browser.” – I mean c’mon, you’re making this too easy, now…

As far as I can see, pretty much the only difference between the internet and an individual SaaS product is that no-one owns the whole internet (yet).

But why is this perspective shift important? Well a) it’s helpful for identifying opportunities to make that giant product better, and b) I believe there’s a solid precedent of companies being greatly rewarded for pursuing the improvement of the whole internet experience.

The biggest products make the whole internet better

Or more like “Products that help make the whole internet better for everyone become the biggest“.

Jock_the_Gorilla_(2)
Solve problems for the whole internet, and you too could be the next 800lb gor- ok, I’ll stop.

If we start thinking about the internet – the whole damn thing – as a single product, some big opportunities start to bubble up to the surface. It’s just a gigantic, global SaaS product with about a billion different features, and which, like every other product out there, needs constant improvement in order to stay relevant, functional and fun for its 3+ billion users.

The internet is one gigantic #SaaS product with about a billion features in constant need of improvement. [Tweet this]

If you’re of a product development bent like I am, the mental wheels start to turn when you consider the internet from this perspective. Products and services that make the whole internet better and easier to use pave the way for people to utilize it more and get more value out of it. Value that they didn’t know they needed or wanted. Value that they’ll often pay for.

So, if the internet is just a big product, rewards are to be had in doing our product manager thing, and finding ways to make it a better product for its target customer: Everyone.

There are other things we must improve about the internet

“Such as?” – well, I’ll tell you my suggestions. Actually, this part is more of a rant about the internet – beware, this is going to be cathartic. Man, I’m having fun writing this…

Comment threads completely suck. All of them, equally, and horribly. Both their format, and the average level of discourse. Fix it with a better product – everyone would benefit from that.

It’s hard to find factual data about controversial issues: Abortion. Guns. Vaccinations. Han shot first. How could we solve for this? I dunno, but if you do, my bet is that your product (whatever it is) will grow at a meteoric rate.

It could always be faster. Solve for that, and then keep solving it, I’ll tell you when to stop. Nuh-uh, faster. Not till I never see this graphic, ever again – then you can stop:

loading

(j/k faster, plz.)

Why are we still using passwords to keep our shit safe? My financial information deserves a better security system than the one we used for our pillow forts as children.

annoyedface

Analytics. Oh my f*#%&#ng bicycle, do not get me started on the state of web analytics today, and the sheer stack of solid gold bars we’re collectively leaving on the table by not dramatically improving the ways our analytics products provide us with information. Another post all about this, inbound, I promise.

Good websites are still a pain in the ass to build. Folks like Grid.io may be tackling an immense technical challenge, but at least they’re asking the right damn questions.

<soapbox>It should only take minutes, not weeks, to configure and deploy a self-optimizing, responsive, decently-designed website that covers the vast majority of users’ needs.

“But WordPr-“

No. Just…no. The only thing most people should need to think about with regards to their website is what content they have to contribute.</soapbox>

Not everyone on Earth has access to it yet. I know, I know – Google’s getting crazy with their Loons, and Facebook has their fleet of Tinmen internet fairy dust-sprinkling drones on the runway. But doesn’t this just prove my point?

(BTW, is anyone else secretly hoping that Google & Facebook start getting… competitive over airspace with these two programs, to the point of maybe arming them? I dunno, I just think it’d be cool to watch killer Facebook drones dogfighting with inflatable autonomous Google air-turrets in space, like Robot Wars?…)

This is just a smattering of potential areas for improvement on the internet. Let’s not even get into the utterly kinetic potential in the Oculus/HTC Vive/Magic Leap side of things…


 So, to recap

When you think about the internet as one big SaaS product, ways to make it better start to become clearer, and they highlight opportunities to build products and companies with staggering growth potential. When you’re delivering a reliable solution to a ubiquitous problem, at such a scale your customer profile pretty much doesn’t matter.

Steal these ideas

With all this said, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that execution is key – all of the opportunities I’ve just described above are incredible technical and logistical challenges to solve, so don’t misread my passion as dismissing the sheer, craggy cliffs of effort facing those who would tackle them.

But if any of you are game to really take them on, I believe significant rewards will justifiably flow to you – so by all means, racers, start your whiteboards!

(And while you’re at it, you sound like my kind of crazy. Shoot me a note, maybe I can help).

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