Your customers may soon own your business

In an age of post-consumerism, individuals will hold the power

It might now be a tired cliché, but the phrase ‘the product is you’ resonates right across the internet. Due to our warped perception that digital tools should be provided for free – at least monetarily – by tech giants, we have become reliable producers of valuable behavioural data.

Many of us now know what our data can be used for, which ranges from the mundane, to the useful, to the outright sinister. Data harvesting makes our online experiences more personalised and streamlined, which, unless you’re actively trying to avoid an echo chamber, is hard to complain about. There’s also micro-targeted advertising which some find useful, while others find intrusive and frustrating.

On the other side, however, many services require us to accept the prospect of government and corporate spying, as well as giving shady organisations like Cambridge Analytica a shot at manipulating democracy.

And yet, despite the risks, we still can’t be without these brilliant digital tools. Government promises of tighter regulation and threats of breaking up – and adequately taxing – big tech companies also seem to have fallen flat. The problem, it seems, is that the power of big tech in both the online and offline world is far too great to be revoked.

Reinventing the web

If the problem is that the deep rooted influence of a handful of multinationals is tied to the internet, the only solution, then, is to reinvent it – a proposition that might sound truly absurd were it not for the World Wide Web’s founder, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, vowing to do exactly that.

Solid, the open-source project he announced in 2018, aims to transform ‘the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value.’

The father of the Internet understands that web users ‘want apps that help them do what they want and need to do – without spying on them’. With this in mind, his new internet would ‘restore balance – by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way.’

When this new internet is unleashed – and indeed if it becomes the Internet – the ability to own our own data would be remarkable in itself. However, this is only the beginning of the story.

Data as a commodity

Data, the capture and use of which is taken for granted by brands the world over, is already a huge commodity. You may have seen claims from many media commentators, including the editorial board of The Economist, that data is more valuable than oil, for example. In a new decentralised internet where companies are no longer entitled to user data, think how the value of data would soar, as would the buying power of individuals.

With new dams in place to stop its unmitigated flow, data’s relative scarcity will make it a valuable commodity. While some may choose to keep their data well and truly locked away, others may choose to share it in exchange for products, services, shares in a company, or indeed money itself.

A long distance relationship

Such an ability would transform the relationships between customers and companies – and undoubtedly be a huge step, but not an unprecedented one. Customers were once far removed from the distant corporate entities of companies. But in the age of social media they have demanded new levels of accessibility, transparency and customer experience.

The evolving habits of customers and new technologies mean that they want to play continually greater roles in the companies they support. Today, many customers are keen to become investors, decision-makers and even campaigners and customer service staff, if they are rewarded for it.

I expect that over the next decade, these new levels of openness already adopted by some brands will come to be expected by customers as standard. Meanwhile, those companies who choose to keep their drawbridges raised will be dismissed by the public as inaccessible, untrustworthy and not worth their time or money.

Welcome the post-consumer

I’ve already argued elsewhere that we’ll soon see the demise of the traditional consumer in favour of an age of post-consumerism. Throughout this era, we’ll see a lot less separation between brands and their customers and more of a level playing field. Rather than a simple case of winners and losers, like the onset of social media, this new era will bring great advantages for both sides.

Post-consumers will want to become closely involved with brands and be given a viable option to own a piece of them. In exchange for this increased loyalty, customers will expect much better, and more bespoke treatment than they do today. Likewise, they’ll also pay close attention to the ethical and environmental credentials of companies.

In many respects, companies like Monzo and giffgaff already invite their customers into their front rooms, allowing them to shape key decisions and even perform campaign and customer service duties in exchange for exclusive rewards.

Be mine

Ultimately, the demand of post-consumers is simple, they want a level of ownership of the brands they support.

Monzo’s radical decisions to let customers help build their marketing strategies and decide which parts of the Monzo service should be charged for prove that the challenger bank is pioneering new models of democratic decision-making.

Indeed, it’s one of the fastest-growing banks in history and attracts incredible levels of investment – another part of its openness. By running regular crowdfunding rounds, Monzo continually encourages its customers to become co-owners. In fact, the bank is now worth a colossal £2bn following a £113m hybrid venture capital and crowdfunding round in 2019.

This neatly leads me to my next point…

Crowdfunding and other investment vehicles as tools for all companies

As the director of a crowdfunding company, you won’t be shocked that I think this form of alternative finance will soon become part of the business mainstream. Already, crowdfunding is seen as a more viable fundraising option than seeking funding from banks amongst many entrepreneurs, with campaigns attracting more and more funds each year.

Crowdfunding has already made retail investment accessible to customers, making it easier than ever to own a slice of a company you believe in. I predict that we’ll see many more brands, both big and small, open their doors in similar ways to Monzo and giffgaff from the outset. In fact, it’s already been proven that by setting out to solve a particular problem and with an open ethos, startups can almost guarantee a market-leading position before they even have products.

Take, for example, the Fintech startup, Freetrade, creators of the community-driven and commission-free stock-trading app. Founded by capital market professionals who saw how expensive and intimidating stock trading was to most people (particularly millennials) they sought to create an easy-to-use solution built for the smartphone era.

Crucially, they allow Freetrade users to suggest the type of stocks they want to see traded. I think this openness has developed from their pre-seed round on the equity crowdfunding platform, Crowdcube, during the very early stages of their existence. Freetrade’s sense of community, collective ownership and decision-making has been there from day one.

Crowdsourced by customers

At the time of writing, (before Coronavirus roiled global markets) Freetrade was valued at £43m and preparing to close £7m following a second crowdfunding round. Their last funding attempt ended prematurely due to overwhelming demand from investors who put in £2m within a matter of minutes – a flood of interest that caused Crowdcube to crash, just as it did when Monzo launched its raise.

The key lesson is this. Freetrade first announced its existence in the Financial Times, despite not having delivered a single product. The idea alone was radical enough – the actual products would be crowdsourced by customers, therefore ensuring a great reception.

When the new internet launches, we can be sure to see a new big tech company adopting a similar model – a new, custodian Google perhaps? Moreover, I suspect that almost all new tech companies will be publicly listed and be largely owned – and guided – by their own customers.

I appreciate that such a widespread change in the demands of customers and the attitudes of companies would be momentous. However, with the rapid rise of social media adoption, alternative finance and far closer company/customer relationships in the last 10 years, it’s evident how quickly seismic shifts can happen.

Alongside the evolving behaviour of customers and businesses and the continual advancement of technology, it really does feel like another transformation is imminent. I’m optimistic that it’ll result in individuals, and not big tech, holding the power. As with any prediction, of course, we’ll have to wait and see. One thing is for sure, though. We’re about to enter another fascinating new era.