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Why digital disruption isn’t done yet

We talk to entrepreneur and ShopFully Co-Founder Stefano Portu about dotcom booms and busts and whether the age of digital disruption is sustainable.

For many, the dotcom boom of the late 1990s was a dark period in corporate history. The market was mesmerised by any stock connected to the internet and, to the detriment of many, dispensed with sober financial metrics to pursue them. However, a decade on, the success of new disruptors such as Airbnb, Uber and countless other suggests the boom times might have come back again – although it perhaps faces a more skeptical investment landscape.   

Man using tablet in cafe

But is our cynicism and fear of empty promises warranted? Entrepreneur, Chief Executive and Co-Founder of shopping app ShopFully, Stefano Portu, has sat at the same table as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Apple chief Tim Cook. Portu experienced the original dotcom boom as a passenger and the most recent as an entrepreneur. He shares his thoughts on why the current boom is not like the last and why it’s creating a new breed of entrepreneur.

Are we in new a dotcom boom? We saw the late 90s bust. What’s happening now?

Honestly, if it is a boom, then I think it’s much more sustainable than 20 years ago for one simple reason: mobile made digital a mass-market industry. I remember the first dotcom boom. At the time, 80 to 90 per cent of the digital experiences we were talking about were very limited in terms of the people they reached. Most of it applied to Western countries and it was about young adult males. Today, in Latin countries, 80 per cent of our users are aged over 35. So, if it is a boom, I think it is sustainable because there are now billions of mobile users who are spending their day with a smartphone in their hand.

You’ve experienced both the traditional corporate career path and the start-up environment. How do they compare?

Any innovative company with ambitious goals should provide its employees with a growth opportunity and expect an entrepreneurial mindset in their job. This means leaving a lot of space to make decisions and be judged by the results you achieve, without the burden of spending too much time in company politics. I’ve been lucky enough to experience this both as a manager and as an entrepreneur.

Do you think the ‘digital native’ generation and their successors joining the workforce are adopting that entrepreneurial mindset?

The new generation recognises that traditional jobs with all the ‘sureties’ of a career path are rarer than ever. At the same time, the limits of where that career path will take you in a corporation is getting slimmer?– even within the same field. Compared to the situation I was facing 20 years ago, the new generation faces much less choice. So, they tend to jump toward [start-ups]. That’s my perception.

“Honestly, if it is a boom, then I think it’s a much more sustainable boom than 20 years ago for one simple reason: mobile made digital a mass-market industry.”

Stefan Portu, Co-Founder and Chief Executive of Shopfully
Man on phone at cafe

Is the supply of common processes (such as banking and shopping) to disrupt and digitise limited? Will it bring the current boom to an end?

We’re still at the very beginning of the current boom; even if the penetration of mobile internet is very high, there is still a lot of room for growth and in time it can grow even more. In our case, you’re seeing it with catalogues and offline shopping, so the shift in habits from offline to online is a question we must ask ourselves. I think digitising existing habits is an entry point – companies that really want to be successful over the long run need to create additional layers of value re-inventing existing habits. I see lots of space for it.

Where is this boom headed? What can we expect?

I think you should look at start-ups in a wider sense. The internet is just the first generation of start-ups. There will be start-ups around cybernetics, DNA sequencing, robotics – they’re already happening, really – so I see in about five-to-10 years’ time another three or four big industries in scope for change. And what’s going to be changing goes much deeper and much wider than the internet and mobile.

If you were to go back in time and explain to Albert Einstein how ShopFully works, what would you say?

I find this question really amusing because I like quotes from Einstein and the one I like the most is about simplicity: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Simplicity is one of our core principles and we want to re-invent shopping in physical stores through smartphones with a smarter experience that can be adopted by tens of millions of people. I would say we want to make brick-and-mortar transparent and make all the information available in stores, such as local promotions and products - accessible to the customer through the ShopFully App when they’re still at home.  

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