The ecosystem of technology companies and startups stands out for its intense competition, rapid scaling, and an often cut-throat, growth-at-all costs environment.
It is an industry that did relatively well over the pandemic, while many others faced existential threats under the cloud of a global recession.
The imposition of remote work and the rapid shift of traditional businesses to digital operations resulted in a boom in demand for SaaS products — a transition that will last decades and help technology companies and their customers.
However, 2021 dawns with a great opportunity for the technology industry to change some of the perceptions around it.
Last year, with great challenge came great responsibility, and the industry stepped up. Free software, hybrid new platforms, and deferred payments became the norm as technology companies understood their privileged positions and fulfilled their obligations to provide help where it was desperately needed.
The technology industry was also an obvious benefactor from the pandemic, but it must now succeed in another way: becoming humbler and more altruistic.
Take, for example, marketing: a core priority for so many organisations with an imperative to gain fast and sizable return on investment. In the past, marketing spend was merely an allocation choice for the marketer and a listening choice for their audience.
Today, its implications strike deeper and audience choice is compromised as online marketing often crosses the bounds of privacy. Spending vast sums on marketing leaves few ways to recoup that investment other than by increasing the cost of the underlying product or service.
Would it be so radical for business leaders to consider investing in research and development (R&D), a far more sustainable and customer-centric approach that brings direct value to the customer?
Through greater focus on R&D, companies can provide better and more technology to users at lower prices, delivering value and promoting loyalty.
Instead of charging a wealthier customer $10, 10 customers can get the product or service for one. This may appear blasphemous, but it would be the true democratisation of technology.
The result is more businesses and industries empowered by technology and a stronger foundation for Australia to respond, grow, and prosper in a post-Covid world.
Indeed, with the Government announcing in October more security and certainty around its Research and Development Tax Incentive (R&DTI), there’s never been a more appropriate time for the industry to continue to innovate, rather than peddle last year’s goods through the redoubtable marketing machine.
We bought a farm
Then there’s urbanisation. Recently, Zoho had a ‘we bought a zoo’ moment — except we built a farm. It wasn’t a crazy, knee-jerk decision, but part of a long-term focus that we’ve been passionate about for ages.
A short drive out of our office in Austin, Texas, we bought a 360-acre plot of land where we’re building a farm. Employees grow their own vegetables and can, and indeed do, work from the farm rather than the office or their home.
The pandemic taught businesses of all sizes they could operate just as effectively remotely while providing greater flexibility and control for their employees, and it is now the time to think and act differently.
Too often, working for global companies means living in urbanised regions where the cost of living infringes on the quality of life. There must be more flexibility and choice and employers must hold themselves responsible to provide them. That’s why we put down roots in areas that are traditionally ignored by large global organisations.
In Australia, it’s the Gold Coast, in the US it was Austin and is moving from there (as others move in!). In The Netherlands it’s Utrecht and in India it’s rural Tamil Nadu. Now, more than ever, there’s a global recognition that a job is not somewhere you go, but something you do.
Making a farm your place of work while your children might pick vegetables beats being stranded for lack of childcare.
A humble approach to data
Then there’s the biggest issue of all: cybersecurity. Security goes hand in hand with privacy. While reliance on technology is at an all-time high, trust is at an all-time low. If the technology industry should have one collective goal, not just for 2021 but for the long-term, it should be building trust, being more transparent, and only collecting user data needed to serve customers.
During the Federal Budget, the Government pledged funding to increase our cyber security skills and counter cyber criminals, through its 2020 Cyber Security Strategy. This should be celebrated, but it must also be matched by a real and long-term commitment from the technology industry to do more and be better.
Unfortunately, too many business models rely on the collection and sale of data. Sustainable, long-term growth through R&D is the path towards competitive advantage and better and more desirable products that would obviate the need to make money by siphoning user data to advertisers.
And if you do collect the data, it should be your obligation to disclose this and offer users a clear and visible option to opt out, just as they were required to actively opt in. Indeed, a study from JWS Research in December found that three-quarters (74%) of Australians want Facebook, Instagram, Google and YouTube to ask for permission before sharing their private information.
Society, economics, and governmental action are now lining up and making the conditions right for change. It’s now up to the technology industry to lay a humbler foundation and set a new course.
The industry was there when the world needed it in 2020, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be there again, for customers and employees for the long-term. That’s the industry we want to be a part of.
- Vijay Sundaram is the Chief Strategy Officer of global technology platform, Zoho.