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What IE taught me about entrepreneurship

19 Mar, 2015 | 5 min read

So it seems the days of the (in)famous Internet Explorer are numbered. While it’s obvious that Microsoft won’t bow out of the internet browser war completely, IE as we know it will apparently be retired in favour of ‘Project Spartan’ (if nothing else, Microsoft need to be commended on the confident naming of their new product).

There are some things, however, that we can all learn from Internet Explorer — and specifically its relaunch a few years ago with IE10. For those who don’t remember, they launched a campaign to try to breathe new life into the dwindling user base.

In doing so Microsoft took a different tack with promoting it and, in my mind, was one that all entrepreneurs can learn from. I originally wrote the below for another site just after the launch of IE10, and now seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.

Once the crown jewel of the Microsoft Windows experience, Internet Explorer has long fallen out of favour with many internet users. It has often been put down as ‘slow’, ‘unsafe’, and ‘only really good for downloading Netscape/Firefox/Chrome’ (depending on the decade in question). While there are still more people using IE than any other browser (estimates are 50% share for IE, compared with only 15% second-place Google Chrome), it’s undeniable that IE is seen by many as the Beelzebub of the browser world.

But in 2012 IE fought back with its 10th incarnation, in a way that all entrepreneurs — aspiring, starting, or established — could learn a thing or two from.

Lesson 1 — Know that you can never please everyone…

No one knows this like Microsoft. As a company they have their fingers in a lot of pies, and so have to deal with competition on several fronts.

As with any form of competition there will be disputes. And when you’re designing your product or service it will be impossible to make it appeal to everyone. Microsoft found this out the hard way through IE when another browser came along and advertised itself as fast, better, and more secure.

Whilst Netscape was arguably all of these things, IE’s only real flaw up until then was that it didn’t have any competition. It’s important to remember that however good your company is, you can’t create something that will be universally liked. You could mass produce kittens that never age, staying small and adorable for all eternity, but there will still be those who are allergic to cat hair.

Lesson 2 — …but one raindrop raises the sea

OK, so I stole that one from Dinotopia, but bear with me. Of course there is no such thing as the perfect product — but that certainly shouldn’t stop you aspiring to make it. And while you’re on your journey, make sure you grab every success you can.

While it was done in a tongue-in-cheek way, the IE10 advert does make a very good point. Their apparent aim was to make just a little progress — “IE sucks… less.” Microsoft know that their advert isn’t going to convince everyone using Chrome to switch overnight. But companies spend millions trying to claw back one or two percent market-share. With an estimated 2 billion people on the planet connected to the net, an extra one percent of people using IE equates to 2 million additional users for Microsoft.

In business — as in life in general — every day is made up of little challenges. Getting one more person to buy your product, getting that one letter of thanks from a client, convincing one person that your internet browser isn’t quite as rubbish as they thought it was, all of these things should encourage you and make you want to keep doing what you do.

Lesson 3 — Think carefully about your marketing

It’s pretty obvious, but if you want to get your product or service out there you need to yell about it. People are, by their nature, pretty set in their ways. If they’re using Chrome or Firefox as their web browser, and are perfectly happy with the way it runs, why would they take the effort to switch? Well, for the same reason that they moved away from IE in the first place — someone told them it would be a good idea.

Advertising is tricky though. With some products being stung by the media (and even Trading Standards) for making big claims, which are only supported by stipulations in tiny writing next to an asterisk, consumers are becoming jaded. Microsoft realised that simply saying the new IE is ‘faster’ and ‘more innovative’ wasn’t going to cut it. They’ve had to go one step further, and by admitting previous flaws they were trying to win back trust.

The way in which you advertise your product defines you as a company, and will directly influence who buys it. As an interesting side note, how many of you noticed that in the entire 90 second advert, you don’t actually see Internet Explorer once?

Also, Lesson 3b — Self depreciative humour is a good thing.

Lesson 4 — Have a clear message for your company

In 2012 and 2013 Microsoft underwent a complete rebrand. Alongside IE10 they released Windows 8 across a plethora of devices, in addition to refreshing the look of their ubiquitous Office suite. The message, across the Microsoft range, was that they were appealing to people’s individual preferences. In the IE10 advert, they do this by homing in on our friendly neighbourhood IE-hater’s love of karaoke.

But when you’re starting out with your venture, make sure that it’s not just your customers who understand your company’s message. Particularly in start-ups, but also across all businesses, the importance of making sure your employees and colleagues understand the company’s core values can not be overstated. Communication is key.

As a real world example, how many times have you called a customer service department with an issue, and been bounced from pillar to post to get it sorted. How infuriating as a customer is it to feel like the different departments seem to have no concept of what the others do?

So there you have it — whatever your thought about Microsoft as a company, and Internet Explorer as a browser, we could learn a thing or two from them about business. Who’d have thought it?

tags: media browsers entrepreneurship tech

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