Blake Irving is the CEO and Board Director of GoDaddy, the world's largest technology provider dedicated to small businesses. Under Mr. Irving’s direction, the company has sharpened its focus on helping small businesses to grow and thrive online—from digital presence and marketing to commerce to back-office administration and peer/community support. A technology pioneer for more than 30 years, Mr. Irving began his career at Xerox in 1981 in the heyday of PARC and later grew to prominence at Microsoft as leader of their Global Cloud Platform Group (MSN, Messenger, Hotmail and Windows Live.) Prior to GoDaddy, Mr. Irving was EVP and Chief Product Officer at Yahoo!, a role in which he grew active users from 550 million to nearly one billion users—positioning Yahoo! to surpass Google and Facebook as the world’s most popular online destination today.

Mediaplanet  How do you think technology is going to evolve over the next 20 years? How do you think it'll affect the Internet experience for consumers and businesses?

Blake Irving  A recent study from the University of Oxford’s “Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology” forecasted that 45 percent of North America’s occupations will be fully automated within the next 20 years—both from robotics in manufacturing and from computerization of complex analytical tasks. That forecast can either be incredibly scary or revolutionarily positive, depending on what all of us do with the information.

If we watch passively as both low-skill and hi-skill tasks are automated, we will almost certainly find ourselves in a crisis of confusion and wide-spread unemployment. If we, however, help people move into creative and socially-intelligent ventures that are non-susceptible to computerization, we have the opportunity to simultaneously grow the economy and make work far more rewarding, enjoyable and personally meaningful.

“Inexpensive cloud-based technology services are beginning to help them wear fewer hats by delivering personalized business insights that take the time and weight out of previously tough decisions. Over the next 20 years, the automation technology that will disrupt so much will also make entrepreneurship vastly easier.”

Today, most people choose their career at the conjunction of “what they are good at” and “what pays the most,” with little consideration for doing what they love. But the same technology that’s driving automation (predictive analytics, machine learning and rudimentary AGI) is also beginning to help individuals follow their entrepreneurial dreams (i.e. doing what they love) without having to be experts in every aspect of business. A small business owner today wears many hats on any given day. They are simultaneously the CEO, CFO, CMO, CTO, CIO and many more.

Inexpensive cloud-based technology services are beginning to help them wear fewer hats by delivering personalized business insights that take the time and weight out of previously tough decisions. Over the next 20 years, the automation technology that will disrupt so much will also make entrepreneurship vastly easier. That disruption could fuel a revolution toward a “producer based” economy made up of millions of individuals who are doing what they love vs. just paying the bills. I think that’s a great future to look (and work) toward making real.

MP  You’ve been an outspoken advocate for gender balance in technology roles. Beyond just being the right thing to do, what does the tech industry have to gain from a more gender diverse workforce?

BI  Understanding how women adopt and utilize technology are two of the most important insights the tech industry can glean—and there’s no better way to do that than to have women build and lead product development. These days, it goes without question that the perspectives and insights surfaced in gender diverse groups can lead to greater creativity and better decisions. However, the tech industry has an equally important reason to court women developers and tech leaders: women are the majority consumers of tech.

Despite the long-running stereotypes to the contrary, women purchase and use more technology than men. Research over the past two years from the market intelligence firm Park Associates has shown that women purchase more tablets, laptops and smartphones; download more music, movies and games; make the majority of household technology purchasing decisions; and utilize devices and services, from games to social media, more than their male counterparts.  With the rise of wearable technology following the same patterns, this gap only promises to widen.

We experience this directly here at GoDaddy, where we focus on cloud services for small business. More than half of small businesses in the U.S. are owned and run by women, and those ventures have disproportionately adopted cloud services like email marketing, SEO & SEM services and online billing and bookkeeping services. As with consumer technology, it’s clear that women’s opinions matter deeply to the success of the small business cloud services industry.

MP  What are your thoughts on net-neutrality? 

BI  The Internet, by its very nature, has been the greatest force for positive economic and social change I’ve seen in my lifetime. It connects people to ideas, marketplaces and to each other; crossing oceans, borders and cultures with ease. It has done more for educating and inspiring good in the world than the most successful newspaper or the most popular politician—toppling dictatorships, exposing corruption and giving a voice to those who would otherwise be silenced. It has fueled the economic freedom of millions and has been a pipeline to understanding, liberty, peace and human solidarity.

"A businesses’ customers will never be everyone and will likely not be most people. Understanding exactly who wants, values, can pay for and will choose one service over another is hard work."

What’s made the Internet great from the onset is a philosophy that says that access should be open to all. For GoDaddy customers, it allows any smart and passionate individual to compete head-to-head with the largest global enterprises, regardless of their access to capital.

That philosophy was under threat by new rules proposed by the FCC that would allow individually negotiated data rates for websites—effectively creating fast and slow lanes for Internet traffic. If Net Neutrality is lost, enterprise businesses (that already hold every other advantage over the little guy) could permanently regain the upper hand, and that’s bad for the global economy and the future of independent ventures.

After a massive outcry from Internet users, and subsequent changes in the proposed rules, I’m hopeful that we’re finally on a good path to permanently protecting the free marketplace that is our open Internet. I continue to watch the proposed legislation.

MP  What is the general impact of net-neutrality on small businesses? How can it affect whether a business succeeds or fails?

BI  It is incumbent on the Internet’s governing bodies to protect an open Internet and establish rules that allow business of any size to succeed or fail based on their own merits, not the size of their checkbook.

GoDaddy’s more than 13 million global customers represent the face of small business in our connected age. They are developers, dentists, lawyers, restaurateurs, retailers, charities, architects, inventors, accountants and artists.  Overwhelmingly they are sole-proprietors or micro-employers with less than 5 employees—which is true of nearly 85 percent of all business in the western world.

Most have been in business for more than 3 years and more often than not, they are women-led. Our customers are the backbone of the global economy and proof that with the help of a little technology, the American Dream is not limited to the borders of the U.S.

"The Internet, by its very nature, has been the greatest force for positive economic and social change I’ve seen in my lifetime. It connects people to ideas, marketplaces and to each other; crossing oceans, borders and cultures with ease."

Our customers are diverse, but there is one characteristic that they all share—each of them depends on the open nature of the Internet to compete against the vast resources of enterprise competition. The conversation on Net Neutrality has focused thus far on the Internet’s power to promote innovation, enhance market liquidity, fuel the spread of new ideas (regardless of their source) and connect people across borders, classes or economies.

But to millions of individuals, the Internet’s open nature is at the core of their very livelihood. They depend on the equalizing force of the Internet to level the playing field; giving them access to equal opportunities to succeed, regardless of size or access to capital.

MP  What advice can you give small business owners looking to dive into the world of e-commerce? Are there any steps you would recommend make sure it is done effectively?

BI  More than any process or software tool, I advise prospective entrepreneurs to get to know their customers deeply to maximize their chances for success—both online and offline. To put it simply, there is nothing more important in business than to understand who one’s customer is and how that business can serve them better than anyone else.

That seemingly simple insight is far more critical than the most eloquent business plan, the best location in town or a world-class suite of e-commerce tools. It might be because it’s so obvious that is so often overlooked. When I hear a business pitch that says “our target customer is every adult in North America,” or the like, I know trouble is ahead.

A businesses’ customers will never be everyone and will likely not be most people. Understanding exactly who wants, values, can pay for and will choose one service over another is hard work.

It will require understanding (or great intuition) of a customers psychology coupled with honest introspection on what an entrepreneur brings to the table as a provider of service.