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Selling the Internet

The Internet is a fascinating place, er, space. I have been online since day one, well, you know what I mean. And I have seen some funky stuff going on in cyberspace. Back in 1993, when the Internet first began to make news, myself and a bunch of hyperactive computer nerds took the streets in an effort to evangelise this new world. If was a tough gig.

But it was filled with inspired adventures and light-hearted moments. I wanted to touch on some of those moments in today’s column as I was reminded a few months ago of how fast the world has changed (and is still changing).

A friend of mine recently told me that her husband thought he had broken the Internet. I remember over 10 years ago people calling us up saying that wanted to buy the Internet. The most common phrase we heard was “We would like to Internet”. So, let’s go back a short while and see how colourful our world has become.

Let’s start off by pondering over the famous chicken and egg equation.

And let’s then think of the fax revolution. I often used to wonder which company bought the first fax machine. What a salesman that must have been; I mean, who did that company fax? Perhaps the first fax they received was from the salesman, who sent them their invoice electronically.

They must have thought “This is a curse, what have we got ourselves into here.” And then they realised that as more and more of their customers rolled out these fascinating machines, then they too could send them invoices, and order forms, etc.

Yes, selling the Internet back in the early 90s was an interesting challenge. We knew we had something magical to share, but how do you sell someone on email, say, when there was no one online. Well, for a start, they could always mail me and our bunch of merry men. And so a virtual community was born.

And it grew and grew and grew. It’s still growing.

Back in 1993 when Internet Solutions started doing its thing we weren’t really marketing and selling the company as much as we were selling a new way of living and doing business.

People wanted to know about the Internet, and not so much about our new start-up. Many people thought we were like a public library or a government office that you could just sommer call up and ask millions of questions and then come over for coffee and cake, play online, and then just vamoose.

Think about this for a minute. Imagine going to a car dealer and say “Why is driving a good thing?” And then, if they convince you of the benefits of owning a car, you go “Ok, I see the light, now please teach me how to drive.” And then, when you thought it couldn’t get any more intriguing, they would go “Ok, I see that cars can help me to be more effective, and I think that driving a car is not as difficult as it first appeared, but now, could you write down a list of places I could go and visit in my new machine.” Seriously.

We were for the most part driving instructors. And driving evangelists. And then tour operators. And we loved it. We used to laugh, with our customers, never at them. Because the truth is, the whole world was talking like this, and it made sense. This was a revolution, and it happened at the blink of an eye. The Internet changed everything, and it is still changing everything. There is a second wave happening online and the way behave and shop and live is about to get a whole lot more wired.

I used to love some of the support calls we used to get. From the Internet being broken, again, to my email is not working, which was always a funny story, mainly because I used to get emails saying “my email is not working”, and then I would ask “how long has it not been working” and they would email me back say “for about a week now”.

Turns out they mailed some guy called Bill at some place called Microsoft and they never heard back from him. Hence, it wasn’t working. We used to get this a lot. This is like phoning up Telkom and saying “Look, I saw those adverts about making the call, about making it happen, but still not one date.”

I hope today’s piece of nostalgia made you giggle a bit. You got to love this new world. Today’s piece was about laughter and light speed. May the two continue to add magic to our lives.

  • Ronnie AptekerRonnie Apteker is one of the founders of Internet Solutions, the country’s largest corporate Internet service provider. He is also a movie producer, an author of two books and sometimes a stand up comedian.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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