Apparently, there is a small business in the north of England which has held a niche in the market of repairing and renovating industrial lathes for several generations. From all over the UK came a steady trickle of the machines to be lovingly worked on in the ancient premises.
Then one day the owner's son, a bright young graduate, asked if he could build a website for the firm. "A website?" his father replied. "What's a website? We've no need for owt fancy like a website." But the son persisted and built the site - a primitive little three-pager in HTML - and included an explanation of what the company did, and where and how to contact it. He also took the trouble to register it with a few search engines.
Within days the phone was ringing off the hook with the owners of poorly lathes from all over the world wanting to ship them forthwith to the company. Within six months, business had doubled. Within a year, father and son had to find larger premises. A business which had previously measured profits in tens of thousands each year was now looking at hundreds of thousands.
Truth or myth? It doesn't matter; there are enough similar stories around to negate the difference. The fact is, there is no better illustration of the true implications of globalisation than in the lathe story.
There are really only two things to remember about the Web: it's global and it's interactive. All the rest is hype. Consciously, or unconsciously, our young graduate had grasped the first of these and turned it to his family's advantage. The implications of the family business becoming global are, of course, immense - but no different than the local high street. A few rules of thumb are: look after your company's image in your local community; make sure you have a memorable logo and slogan with which to market your company; and have a presentable office, with an impressive boardroom filled with trophies and awards testifying your excellence.
If you are serious, you should have an attractive brochure and a well-presented annual report. Perhaps you sponsor a local team or drive a prestigious car, or wear well-cut suits and are seen in the right places.
Choose your words carefully to emphasise branding, image and reputation.
Let's say you have a big London headquarters, hire companies to advise you on branding, to look after your image and to protect your reputation. Why should it be any different globally on the Web? It isn't. You need to do the very same things for a website. You need to make sure you do not destroy the value of your brand; make sure that nothing you do cheapens your image and that you protect your reputation.
Simple? Yes. But how many companies which spend millions looking after these things in the real world squander all their hard won advantages as soon as they go global on the Web? How often do we see major players - FTSE100 companies - represented on the Web by an undecipherable, poorly engineered and badly designed mess that looks as though it has been slapped together by people with no concept of language and no concern for how it will reflect on the company? And why do those in charge seemingly allow it to happen? Perhaps they are loathe to interfere in an area of which they know little. What, then, should they be doing? First, they should realise that establishing a Web presence means taking every one of the carefully thought-out branding, image and reputational issues and placing it on a site for all the world to judge.
Second, treat each of their newly acquired global customers in as courteous and helpful a fashion as they would their best customer in their local community. The reason why Amazon is such a success is that it cares about its customers - it even sends them emails saying the books should arrive any time now, knowing they have probably been delivered already. Third, they should attempt to personalise that relationship with those customers - be they from Malawi or Malaysia - as if they were a next-door neighbour.
It is not rocket science. It is about making a user's visit to the site as pleasant, easy and fulfiling as it can possibly be - and most of that is down to good design, content and navigation.
There is a global audience out there. The young man with the lathe business knew that.
Rod Tyler is managing director of Internet consultancy IAB
This was first published in February 2001