Pioneers of Digital: How to be Part of the Next Generation of Internet Entrepreneurs

This is a guest post by Mel Carson.

When I was asked by Professor Paul Springer to co-author Pioneers of Digital, I seriously wondered how on earth we’d whittle down our long list of ground-breaking candidates into the final twenty we ended up choosing.

He’d drawn up a list of people he felt had made significant contributions and so had I, and they were both very different. It was then that the penny dropped and I realized we had something special on our hands: in this age of big data and ubiquitous information, knowledge is very powerful and as an industry we’re very interested in people and their experiences and what motivates them.

So when I didn’t know many of the potential Pioneers on Paul’s list, I instantly wanted to understand why he thought they were so remarkable – he says the same happened when he sorted through mine.

My philosophy when it comes to digital media is all about the integrated approach, which is why we feature the success stories spanning advertising, marketing, search and social media. Readers who pick up the book because they are interested in learning the story behind how Danny Sullivan created Search Engine Watch and the SES conferences, or how Vanessa Fox worked tirelessly to engineer Google Webmaster Tools and changed the culture at Google for a more open and authentic dialogue with SEOs, can turn the page and read about the fascinating career path of Carolyn Everson, who now heads up Global Marketing at Facebook, or hear how Gurbaksh Chahal went from selling refurbished printers on eBay to selling a behavioral targeting company to Yahoo! for $300m. His story is a blueprint for any aspiring pioneers seeking their fortune online.

When we’re out speaking to companies or at conferences about these Pioneers, our talks are anchored on what made these stories the most compelling, and what advice they have for the next generation. Here are just three of the pioneering traits we uncovered:

You Don’t Have to Be Original

Entrepreneurs these days often beat themselves up about the big idea. Their brains burst trying to think of the next big thing without looking for inspiration from everything around them.

Gurbaksh Chahal, founder of RadiumOne, is forthright in his view that you must be more agile and, at first, adapt existing ideas to make them better. “If you want to disrupt the market, don’t necessarily do something brand new. See what people are already doing. Once you’ve scaled that, incorporate what you want to bring that’s new. You need traction on what people are already doing – existing behaviors, existing products.”

Think about how Google became so successful. There were search engines before Google and there were PPC platforms before AdWords. What Google did was to creatively pivot around existing platforms and do a better job of being more relevant – for consumers and targeted for advertisers. They cleaned up their interface, kept it uncluttered and the rest is now history.

When June Cohen of TED was turned down by the BBC when she was trying to sell the idea of broadcasting TED Talks, she looked at online video. It was a platform she had experimented with in the early nineties, so, keen on being agile enough to pounce on new and emerging opportunities in online space, Cohen used it to help her company spread ideas by testing different filming and editing techniques. She noticed that “Different people watch video in different ways and at different times (so) we released TED Talks on multiple platforms. As a podcast on iTunes, streaming video on, embeddable player for blogs and on YouTube. We’ve now extended to mobile apps, set-top boxes like Roku & Boxee, even airplane in-flight video systems.”

Don’t Let Technology Dictate

What became more apparent as we wrote the book, was that so many of our Pioneers felt they had become bogged down by the belief that great ideas are about the vehicle and not the destination. Many suggested that you still have to have a good idea first, and if you focus too much on the technology you can get lost in it. Understanding your customer and your goals on what action you want them to take is way more important than how you get them to do it.

Cartoon Credit: Gaping Void

It’s not just technology that can be the blocker either. Internal politics can hold up progress – as Vanessa Fox found at Google. Getting engineers to release any kind of data to help webmasters was treated with suspicion and a brick wall until she went on a charm offensive and showed them how a value exchange could result in a win-win situation for the company and the community alike as she suggests we “spend time with colleagues & partners in different departments. Really try to understand what they do and how to speak their language. It’ll help when it comes to communicating ideas and having an empathy with their thinking.”

You Have to Have Fun!

It might sound obvious, but all our Pioneers said that enjoying what you do is so important for a successful and fulfilling career.

As the British author, actor and social media darling Stephen Fry says, “You have to love it. You absolutely have to love it. Just enjoy the ride, enjoy the creativity that it gives you…What you’ve got to be driven by is what f**king fun and how unbelievably exciting it is.”

When Danny Sullivan, Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land, talks about his accomplishments and that of his team’s, he suggests, “If you’re trying to be successful, one of the keys in that is whether or not you’re doing something you enjoy.”

For many of our interviewees, this was the very first time in years (and in some cases, ever) they had taken the time to reflect on their achievements and what they think they had done to carve their place in internet history.

For the writers assembling this cast of digital pioneers, we hope that mutual process of discovery and capturing for the record helps inspire a new generation of Pioneers to lead Digital’s next unchartered chapter!

The book is now available on Amazon and Kindle here: Pioneers of Digital – Success Stories from Leaders in Advertising, Marketing, Search and Social Media

The book is available now on Amazon and Kindle: Pioneers of Digital: Success Stories from Leaders in Advertising, Marketing Search and Social Media

Mel Carson is founder of Seattle based digital consultancy Delightful Communications and his co-author is Professor Paul Springer is Head of Research at Buckinghamshire New University in the UK.


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9 replies on “Pioneers of Digital: How to be Part of the Next Generation of Internet Entrepreneurs”
  1. says: Lucy

    Today being an entrepreneur is an exciting prospect for many as being employed under someone else is no longer seen as interesting anymore. Come the next generation and you will see a bunch of new entrepreneurs on the block looking to set up their businesses. And they will not just be business owners, they will use Internet as their most potent weapon to establish their business.

  2. says: Mark Walters

    It’s common for people to give up on good ideas because they’re not great ideas. Good ideas can turn into great ideas if they’re given enough time and attention though. You need to do your own thing in your own way. For me, that’s what being a pioneer is all about.

  3. I must agree as I am a business owner who has recently become a pioneer of digital. I recently published my first amazon Kindle book and I am enjoying the experience very much. Your article just hit home so I had to comment.

  4. says: Ryan

    For a few years before I got into digital, I tried to break into various industries as an offline business and didn’t have much success. I had always been great with computers, but never really even considered using my skills to make money online. It was a bit surprising since I had known how to create websites since I was 10 years old, but never even considered it as anything other than a hobby. Here I am a few years later running campaigns for over a dozen businesses and having success. Embracing the constantly changing technologies as they change means that you will be at the cutting edge.

  5. says: jromito

    All ideas are based on past innovations so, simply doing something that exists in a better way is innovation. I’d especially have to agree with loving what you do, entrepreneurial endeavors are truly taxing, and it takes a level passion and love to persevere. Both in the digital realm and the brick mortar industries passion shows in your product and fans, clients, or consumers all respond well to it. I also agree on the technology race point, sometime the best platform for your idea is already here and time tested, using the best fit is better than using the newest in most cases. I really enjoyed reading these great pieces of advice.

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