Job lots: the double-edged sword of ‘e’

Recently I purchased the Portenzo for my iPad – as documented in my last blog post. The Portenzo is a hand-made iPad case that makes your iPad look just a little bit old-school.  It’s made of leather and wood and…

Well, you get the idea.  It’s not for everyone, but those that like it, really like it. 

Now, what fascinated me with this product was the interaction of electronic word-of-mouth and ‘now-traditional’ eCommerce.  I heard about the product from the 46 user reviews on YouTube, the 5,800 blog reviews, and the Twitter feed.

Portenzo is just a small company in the US.  Before the internet, their market plan would have been to target vaguely nerdy-looking people hanging out at the University refectories.  Usually the ones with goatees.  Now, however, they get access to a much larger audience for their product.  It’s like paying for a 24/7, global advertising campaign, only without the paying-for-it part. 

The point is that the product is a good one, but of limited appeal.  The internet broadens the potential customers they can access though, and the more users that are attracted to their products, the more those users (possibly because, like myself, they are obsessively-compulsively nerd-like) announce their proud purchase on places like YouTube and on Facebook.  And so Portenzo was doing fairly swimmingly – they were taking a regular number of orders each week for their retro-uber-Gen-Y/X attractor, and they were getting good write-ups.

Then along came Steve Jobs with his new magic-powered device – the iPad2 (just like an iPad1, only not).  Suddenly many more people rushed to buy the iPad2, and to make sure they kept the magic inside that shiny aluminium frame they went out in the modern equivalent of hunter-gathering for an iPad case (it’s exactly the same, only less spears and mammoths).  Suddenly Portenzo were swamped with many online orders shipping around the globe, and their happy coffee-drinking workforce got a little stressy putting out the product (whilst striving to keep the quality up to scratch).  Shipping times crept up.  And then leapt up.  At last count, it was taking about 10.5 weeks to get your hands on on of these custom-made beauties.

Now, while Portenzo were busy building and shipping, they went ‘dark’ on their social media websites (twitter, Facebook, and so on) – people being people started thinking, ‘hey, did I just send my cash to an internet mobster?’.  And so the speculation and conjecture on those now-unmonitored websites started to reach levels not seen since the last X-Files Convention.  Suddenly, things went from being peachy-keen in the online world to being more like the latest Harry Potter film (quite a bit darker than previously, in case you hadn’t noticed).  Eventually, Portenzo got online, started to deal with the complaints and communicate with their customers (and not just the ones that were complaining; by responding to the complainers they sent a message to the waverers as to where their product might be and when they might get it).  And many people that were previously complainers came back upon receiving the cases, and apologised and talked about how great their products were.  Exhibit A, their Facebook page

So the online world has transformed and traumatised business.  This ‘e’ thing is no longer an ‘e’, it’s now just how we do business.  There’s opportunity there for people that grab it, but it’s a dark master that can really turn on you (kind of like the dark side of the force, but with financial statements). 

Which all turns me to developing a point out of this blog post.  In a former life, I wrestled with getting the e-commerce stuff working for an accounting firm.  But the partners were loathe to move away from tried-and-true billable hours to something risky, untested, and frankly crazy-sounding.  But it’s an untested proposition to date.  My question of relevance (and yes, I think it’s really relevant) is, if the internet can completely change the way our clients do business, how are public accounting practices changing the way we work as a result?  Any good examples out there?  Any bad ones?  Or are public accounting practices somehow immune from the effects of the internet (and if so, why is this the case?)

Looking forward to your thoughts on the matter.