Business success answers from the 1920's

One trend that I've been tracking for some time now is the nature of thriving business in the digital economy. Something sets a select few apart, something that ensures the ongoing success, growth and customer loyalty that thousands of companies in the digital business scene have failed to create. I've scanned the market over the past five years, and have a list of favorite digital businesses. Ones that I feel have found a secret sauce to digital prosperity, customer loyalty and limited backlash. My list of favourite businesses are a mixed bunch, some have hugely publicised, some are rarely heard of


This business was founded by Nick Swinmurn in 1999, under the original domain name The initial inspiration came when he couldn’t find a pair of brown Airwalks at his local mall. 

Zappos uses a loyalty business model and relationship marketing. The primary sources of the company's rapid growth have been repeat customers and numerous word of mouth recommendations. Of its customers, 75% are repeat buyers.

The company's customer service reputation has been augmented through viral spreading as well: "Shoe merchant Zappos has benefited from Internet wildfire. When Zappos offered special return shipping assistance, beyond their company policies...the good word about the company spread quickly throughout the blogosphere."

In 2008, Zappos hit $1 billion in annual sales, two years earlier than expected (one year later, they fulfilled their other long-term business goal, debuting at No. 23 on Fortune’s Top 100 Companies to Work For). A deal with Amazon was eventually closed in November 2009 for a reported $1.2 billion, under strict conditions to maintain Zappos community and brand


Facebook is an online social networking service, whose name stems from the colloquial name for the book given to students at the start of the academic year by some university administrations in the United States to help students get to know each other. The platform now connects 1.1 Billion global users and connects to grow at 2% per month. Which equates to a massive 22 million people join Facebook every month.

Facebook joined the Fortune 500 list for the first time, being placed at position of 462 on the list published in May 2013.

Amazon, Inc. is an international multibillion dollar electronic commerce company. The business is the world's largest online retailer. started as an online bookstore, but soon diversified to selling movies, music,  downloads/streaming, software, video games, electronics, apparel, furniture, food, toys, and jewellery. The company also produces the Amazon Kindle —and is a major provider of cloud computing services.

Wine Library

Gary Vaynerchuk took over his father’s shop, Shopper’s Discount Liquor, and rechristened it Wine Library, which he has built into what he says is a $60-million-a-year business. Powered by Gary's raw enthusiasm and energy, Wine Library became a benchmark for customer services in the eCommerce space. A sentiment that comes through in Gary's best-selling book, The Thank You Economy.


The company is an online service that provides a platform for individuals referred to as “hosts”, generally private parties, to rent unoccupied living space and other short-term lodging to guests. As of November 2012, the company had over 250,000 listings in 30,000 cities and 192 countries.[1] Listings include private rooms, entire apartments, castles, boats, manors, tree houses, tipis, igloos, private islands and other properties.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb partnered with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to offer free housing for persons displaced by the storm. Airbnb built a dedicated site for this effort alone where victims register for housing and meet property owners with free housing.


Spotify is a commercial music streaming service providing content from record labels including SonyEMI,Warner Music Group and Universal. Launched in October 2008 by Swedish startup Spotify AB

Spotify principally operates under a so-called 'Freemium' model: basic services are free and more advanced or additional features are offered at a premium. This is augmented by income from music purchases within the player. As of 2013 Spotify offered a US$10 per month unlimited subscription

Secret to success?

Each of these companies have strong well-known brands, but that didn't always have dominance they enjoy today. Each of them had to come through the ring of fire that burns thousands of digital business startups every month. So what differentiated them from the rest? To understand their secret, I need to take you back to the 1920's.

buthcerBack in the 1920's everything was different, but it was also the same. While the concept of the Internet, Smartphones and Facebook were decades away from inception, there were key commerce norms that translate to today's modern digital businesses. Relationship-based business and commerce.

Prior to World War II, before any of us mass adopted communication technology the world was very personal. We knew the name of our bank manager, and they knew us. Statistically, there was a strong chance your bank manager was invited to your wedding. But as businesses made aggressive attempts to globalize starting in 1970s, they left behind the very thing that made business personal, genuine human interactions and relationships. The local butcher and green grocer knew you by first name, they knew your birth date, and every time you entered their store it was like catching up with an old friend. Both the Butcher and the Green Grocer would make recommendations on seasonal fruits or a gourmet batch of sausages. These were genuine human relationships.

If your butcher or green grocer made a mistake by selling you bad meat or rotten apples, they would go out of their way to correct it, in a genuinely humane manner.

Four key insights come from this period that each of my digital commerce champions have embraced as a part of their core DNA:

Greet  by name

Like your Bank Manager in the 1920's, Amazon, Wine Library and AirBnb greet you by your first name. Welcome Scott, greets me every time I browse to Greeting your customer by name is a very meaningful and treasured detail that adds greatly to the way they experience doing business with you. If your business works by appointment or digital, the initial point of contact should make sure he knows just who will be walking in the door next, and immediately greet them. Just like the Butcher with eye contact, a smile and "Good morning Scott?" Such a simple thing to do, but it goes a long way when building a relationship with a customer

Pay attention, and learn

Learn more about your customer. Don't just learn, use what you learn to add value in the ongoing relationship. Turn the relationship from transactional to loyal. Don't we all have a story about the coffee shop waitress who doesn't ever need to be told how we like our iced tea, or the diner where the cook starts to make the same thing you always order the minute he sees you walk in the door? The florist who never puts a particular flower in an arrangement because they remember it makes you sneeze or the wine shop that calls you when a certain vintage comes in because they know you're partial to it. These experiences add value, and they also instill an enormous amount of loyalty. Doing the same in the digital space is fairly simple. Yet the large majority of businesses fail to capture the value of this highly impactful moment. If it's your customer's birthday, acknowledge it. I annually test my bank by going into a branch with a simple query and am consistently disappointed.barista

Amazon, Airbnb and Spotify all welcome you with the latest suggestions, recommendations and trends relevant to you. Have you ever gone to on your birthday?

Always be suggestive

Don't ask me why, but as humans we are inherently lazy when it comes to making choices. We tend to dislike being overwhelmed with choice, especially when faced with the abundance of options many digital businesses or commerce providers offer. Imagine if Amazon displayed all of its products on one page?


When Amazon recommends a product on its site, it is clearly not a coincidence. At root, the retail giant's recommendation system is based on a number of simple elements: what a user has bought in the past, which items they have in their virtual shopping cart, items they've rated and liked, and what other customers have viewed and purchased. Overtime the recommendations become more meaningful, and convert at increasing rates. But best of all, the customer is delighted that you've made their purchasing easier.


What do you do to show your customers, your customers or clients that you appreciate them? After all, there are probably several other businesses that do what you do. Do you show the customers who choose to patronise you that you value and appreciate their business? Feeling appreciated is an experience that is universally meaningful. Simply saying Thank You went a long way for Gary Vaynerchuk when running Wine Library, making him synonymous in  customer service circles, but best of all, customers were blown away by his humane approach to appreciation. No machine generated emails, no out of context offers, just a genuine from the heart thank you. How hard can that be?


Today's digital commerce giants didn't reach their dominance through superior technology, huge marketing budgets, celebrity endorsements or even pure luck. They simple realised that we are all human, and we all like to be treated like one. So by turn back the clock and learning from our grand parents, we can learn allot about relationship based commerce and build valuable, impactful and delightful customer relationships.