I've been thinking a lot about Dava Sobel's book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. For those of you who don't remember the 1995 book, it's the story of one John Harrison, an 18th-century clock maker who solved a problem that had had some serious ramifications, more or less since the beginning of time. Harrison created a series of precise clocks that worked no matter where they were placed -- at home by the hearth or on a ship, buffeted by winds and weather. The clocks were the keys to calculating longitude. They served to help us measure and map the globe, and they allow us all to know where we are.
But until he perfected such clocks, explorers had no reliable way of calculating longitude -- and the inability to do so had dire consequences for sailors. Writes Sobel: "For lack of a practical method of determining longitude, every great captain in the Age of Exploration became lost at sea despite the best available charts and compasses. From Vasco da Gama to Vasco NÃºÃ±ez de Balboa, from Ferdinand Magellan to Sir Francis Drake -- they all got where they were going willy-nilly, by forces attributed to good luck or the grace of God."
Still, despite their virtual inability to navigate -- and the often lethal consequences of getting lost -- explorers kept exploring. The possibility of finding exotic spices and gold in unconquered lands was too tantalizing to individual explorers and their kings, who sought the wealth of their nations at the brave hands of their seamen. Given the choice, an adventurer simply couldn't stay home.
What was going on at sea during the Age of Exploration isn't all that far removed from what's happening now. Sure, in the days of Magellan the landscape hadn't literally changed -- the sea, after all, had always been there -- but until then it was the rare brave soul who'd ventured onto it. Today the Internet -- a new and constantly shifting landscape -- has transformed the world in which we all work, no matter what kind of company we run. As a result, even entrepreneurs who aren't at all certain that they want or need to leave their comfortable firesides to move onto the Web must explore the new landscape, both to search for new riches and to protect themselves from dangers that may loom ahead.
In this issue, writers Mike Hofman and Bronwyn Fryer take a hard look at two "brave new companies." These businesses -- the first, 11 years old, and the second, a venerable 22 -- had been profitable for years. They were land based, with no discernible need to leave the safety of their brick-and-mortar existence. And yet both companies have risked much to move resolutely into the Internet economy.
Roy Wetterstrom, the CEO of Plural, is taking an enormous, if calculated, gamble. He believes that if he were to stay still, his business would ultimately cease to thrive as the new world changes the old.
The second company, Cameraworld.com, is moving more gently, and perhaps more surefootedly, into the new environment. Fryer describes how this mail-order house is benefiting from two decades' worth of experience -- experience that applies as well in the Internet world as it did in the physical.
As Plural's Wetterstrom is discovering, the digital economy is forcing us all to become explorers, even as we search for the instrument with which we can calculate our longitude in this unfamiliar world.
Absent the perfect clock, what is your measure of longitude in the Internet economy? Let me know how you're navigating.
-- Elaine Appleton, Editor
P.S. Inc. Technology will once again honor the best Web sites of small companies. Does yours shine online? Visit www.inc.com/incmagazine/surveys to enter the Inc. Web Site Awards contest.