The Invisible Business
If you work in a shop, a factory, a building site, you probably never have to elaborate on what you do for a living when someone asks. That’s because you’re involved in a business that everyone can relate to. There’s a transaction, a process or an end product that is clear to see.
But millions of us don’t have it so easy. For the Steamhaus team in particular, there’s an ever-present threat of people saying “Really? What’s that?” rather than taking “cloud hosting” for an answer when they ask what we do. Yep, we work in a business that can bring dinner parties to a halt.
This got us thinking, though – who else must have to keep a well-rehearsed script in the recesses of their minds to draw on when they’re cornered in social situations? We’ve come up with a list of industries that are doubtless well-known to those that deal directly with them, but to the rest of the world are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.
And the more we thought about it, the more we realised that it’s these invisible companies that are the mortar holding the entire structure of business together. They don’t advertise on buses or during commercial breaks, but many of them are listed on stock exchanges and are worth billions of dollars.
So what are these businesses? And more importantly, what would we do without them? We’ve come up with a list of those from our own industry – digital tech – and maybe you can name some from your own. Because once you know they’re there, they cannot be un-seen.
What makes a business invisible?
To qualify as invisible by our definition, a business must be one that we use pretty much every day but have no idea we’re using it – or even know it exists.
Steamhaus’s Dan Keighron-Foster puts it like this:
“I’d say that an ‘invisible business’ is one that isn’t appreciated as much as it should be. It could be that the business itself regularly falls under the general public’s radar, or their employees are generally underappreciated, because it’s not always clear what their work entails.
Applications are a great example. Most people can probably appreciate the amount of work that goes into creating an application, but we probably don’t spend too much time thinking about the 24/7 work that keeps it up and running. The fact that you can wake up at 2 a.m. and use the app doesn’t seem strange to us. And those updates that you begrudgingly apply don’t come from nowhere!”
Digital marketing could also be considered an invisible business; most internet users remain blissfully unaware of the work that goes into forming their search engine result pages. Digital marketing agency PushON said the following:
“We can’t walk fifty metres through a city without being confronted by evidence of businesses’ presence on shop fronts, office receptions and advertising hoardings.
But millions of people are employed by companies that operate beyond the high street and are essentially “invisible” to the public. We might not even know they exist, but without them shops, airlines, solicitors, construction companies and every other public-facing company simply couldn’t function.
And just to make things more confusing, many invisible businesses are valued in the billions of dollars.”
FourthDay is a PR agency that has invisible businesses on its roster. While you might think this is a nightmare scenario for anyone involved with public relations, they think differently:
“In reality, most businesses are invisible. Everyone knows the big brands, but scratch the surface and it’s immediately more difficult to name any of those secondary brands that have gone into the making of a product or service.
If you stopped someone on the street and asked them to name three brands that have contributed to the manufacturing of a laptop, I doubt many would be able to give you an answer, bar what’s written on the box.
Whether it’s a laptop or the components that stop your website from crashing, how many of us can name the ‘behind the scenes’ teams that make it ‘just work’?”
Our Business: Cloud Hosting
Steamhaus is an invisible business. While many people will be familiar with the concept of website hosting (even if they don’t fully understand its details), as soon as “the cloud” is mentioned, things start getting a little foggy in the public imagination.
As consumers as well as providers, we can see invisible business from both sides of the window, so can state with the authority of both expertise and ignorance that people don’t think about invisible businesses until it’s too late.
As consumers, we don’t really want to think about the background goings-on that allows us to go about our daily lives. As long as the websites we want are live, our email is coming through and our Twitter updates are all on time, we’re happy. In truth there’s not much need for us to be aware of anything else – that’s what we pay the experts to know.
But when you’re a business owner, you do need to think about them. The public will notice if your website is down. People will shop elsewhere, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to any business.
Back in 2013, Google went down for as long as it takes to boil an egg. But the effects were astronomical: global web traffic dropped 40% as confused web users wondered what mechanism they could possibly use to reach bbc.co.uk, ebay.com and asos.com. This illustrates how reliant everyone is on a business that most people don’t understand the inner workings of.
While Google is big enough for a small outage to not affect them too badly, smaller websites aren’t so lucky. The second their website is seen as being unstable, people stop trusting them. We’ve seen stores being completely unprepared for Black Friday and having websites that are dead to 99% of would-be shoppers. It’s astonishing that businesses that rely wholly on online sales can let this happen – but every year it does.
Invisible Businesses: The Hidden Gallery
Here are some of the businesses we use every day but which the majority of the general public use without a second thought.
Most people only have a basic understanding of what hosting actually is, which is completely fine. The people who should know the ins and outs are website/application owners and managers. If they don’t, you’re going to run into trouble.
A lot can go wrong with hosting, which can result in loss of visitors, users and revenue. At the very least, it can be a pain to sort out minor queries or questions you might have about what you’re paying for.
Internet Service Providers are a necessary evil for a lot of people, especially if you’re limited to only a few options. But no matter how bad they can get, the other option – not connecting at all – is far worse. There are very few businesses existing today that don’t rely on ISPs in some way. Whether it’s a POS system or the office computers, they all have to access the wider internet to function. When they’re doing their job well, no one notices. But the moment they drop, you can be sure social media will be overcome with complaints – as long as users can find a way to get online!
Email Service Providers
It’s safe to say that if you’re reading this, you’ll have sent an email. Email has changed the way we communicate and even the language we use.
IMAP, POP, SSL and SMTP probably mean nothing to most people, but without experts in these systems there would be no email. It’s tempting to think that when we click send, the email and its attachments are somehow magically recreated in the recipient’s computer. Spare a thought for the technicians who make it seem that way, because they’re keeping business communication – and therefore business itself – flowing.
We push a button on our computers, they spring into life and we can start working or playing. Not many of us consider the millions of lines of code that go into the programs we use. Windows 10, for example, contains 50–80 million lines of code, all written by the team at Microsoft.
Every computer program, website, game and application has been painstakingly written by a developer. Without Software Developers, we’d have no software at all. There’d be very little hardware either.
They’ve been plying their trade since the earliest programmable computers that emerged around WW2, but it’s the rise of people like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Jack Dorsey who have made the profession better known and – dare we say it? – more glamorous.
What we probably don’t appreciate about software is the ongoing work that supports it. As well as the developers who are constantly pushing programs to take advantage of new technologies, there are the countless support personnel who ensure users can, well, use their solutions.
Buying things online is a wonderfully simple thing to do. You click on what you want, pop your credit card and delivery details in, and before you know it you have your T-shirt, gadget or pizza at the door.
But behind the scenes there are numerous processes happening to ensure that your money goes where it’s supposed to in the securest way possible.
We all use search engines. Without search engines the internet would be infinitely more difficult to navigate, as we discovered in 2013. We’ve become so reliant on them that we hardly bother making bookmarks any more because it’s quicker to search for the site and the engines will know what we’re looking for before we’ve finished typing – or saying – the name.
Microprocessor/Semiconductor Chip Producers
There is a surprising number of businesses out there that make microprocessors. The commonest are Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm, Micron Technology, and of course, Intel.
Intel has managed to transcend their invisible status by reaching out to the public with high profile advertising, even though most people will buy a ready-made computer and care little for who manufactured the gubbins. Intel’s revenue is around $55 billion a year, so it’s safe to say that they’re doing alright.
Intel gives hope to all invisible businesses that one day, their contributions to the modern world might be recognised and possibly even appreciated.
Invisible Businesses: Not How they at First Appear
We’ve given a few examples of the types of businesses that we work with on a daily basis, and which 99% of the population directly or indirectly use completely obliviously.
Whatever industry you work in, there will doubtless be numerous businesses that we have zero understanding of, and we’d probably be surprised that some of them exist. We’d love you to share them with us.
The funny thing is, we’re in an odd situation here at Steamhaus. Cloud hosting is definitely something that’s on a need-to-know basis, so we’d hope the IT and web team at every business has heard of it and knows of its advantages.
But observing the Black Friday outages and other similar occurrences that simply could not happen with the kinds of scalable solutions we deal with, we can only conclude that to a lot of IT professionals for some household-name retail brands, cloud hosting remains an invisible business.
It looks like we’ve got a few more years of dinner party explanations to come yet…