Beware the creeping changes

monsters

Things that creep up on you can be the hardest to recognise and defend against. Whether they be imaginary spooks hiding in the dark to frighten you from your slumbers, or people quietly tip toeing up behind you to shout ‘boo!’ in your ear, if you don’t see it coming, it can be unnerving when it’s already upon you. Of course, you are at your most vulnerable when you have no idea what is about to hit you.

Last week I saw a stat that really summed up all the digital changes that have been happening over the past 15 years or so. Online advertising in Australia surpassed the A$6 billion mark in 2015.

6 big ones.

The growth is not slowing either; since 2010, online ad revenue in this country has been rising at more than 20% a year. Last year it grew 28%. Within this growth, mobile ad revenue grew 80% last year, and video ad income 75%.

Online ad revenue was almost zero in the year 2000. I remember that year well. It was probably the toughest year of my life so far. There were illnesses in the my family, two friends of mine succumbed to cancer, and it was first year of my fledgling tech startup. Our initial seed funding had run out, and we had passed the dotcom crash after which no more investment funds would be forthcoming. I had quite a few sleepless nights, and not a few doubts. We had a few real estate agencies on board, but very few were paying very much, and it was going to take a while for us to get to cash flow positive, let alone profitability.

A few years on, I remember when online ads in Australia went over the $1 billion mark (2003) and then within two years had doubled to A$2 billion. At A$6 billion, it is now the number one advertising medium in the country. Print ads have fallen to A$2.2 billion and set to continue their decline. Movie ads, radio ads, TV ads, are being left in online’s wake.

When I talk to online tech people these days I joke that we had almost 100% market share of the online real estate ad market in Perth in 2000, but unfortunately it was 100% of very, very little. But as the online market grew, we kept ourselves alive long enough (sometimes I wonder how) to take advantage of the creeping change that was occuring all around us. We built a nice little business out of this, with real profits appearing in year 5 and dividends paid to shareholders from then on.

Today, realestate.com.au (ASX: REA) is worth over A$7 billion (share price $55). In 2000, REA Group’s share price was a mere 12c (half its listed price of 3 years earlier). It was touted as yet another dotcom disaster, an example of greed overtaking common business sense. With 3 CEOs in 4 years, it was but a few months away from closing shop altogether. Or so the wise analysts thought. By 2008, it had billion dollar value, and now after another 8 years is seven times that.

We weren’t the only ones to see that real estate search was broken in the last century, and that the new one would herald a new way of finding your next home. Many people knew this was happening, but the incumbents paid lip service to the imminent threat. Very few people are crying for them now. The 2 weekend papers that once had huge real estate (and cars, and jobs, and boats…) sections in them that landed on your doorstep with a loud thud, are now so weak they are having to combine forces to give themselves a few years more life. In an isolated marketplace with little competition (bar online, which they don’t have much share of). They hide their limp real estate sections in among the cartoon section. A tie up that was once thought anti-competitive, is now being hurried through.

I was once in a boardroom of one of the main paper-based media empires during the early 2000s. Accosting me from across the table, one executive jabbed his finger towards me saying: “Why would we turn a $380 million business into a $38 million dollar business?” (the online ad market being much smaller at the time, his reasoning was why would be chase the internet market and so herald our own demise?). Pausing for a while to take in this question, I answered “Because you have to. And if you don’t this year, it will only get more expensive the next year, and the year after that. It will only get harder for you to make the change.” He glared at me like I had lost my mind.

In all of this is a lesson. Never take things for granted. At your peak, be your most worried. When feeling most comfortable, be nervous. Analyse what is happening, what could happen, what you could do to take advantage of things. Some things will lead you down dark alleys, some of it will be wasted time, dead ends, but you’ll be experimenting, learning, feeling your way. No one can predict the future, but the onset of online advertising was certainly something that could have been foreseen, in the same way mobile and video ads are now galloping along.

Get on trend, or be left behind.

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