Apologies for skipping a week. I have been rather preoccupied as the father of the bride at an elegant Austin wedding.
However, that suggested a useful topic for this essay. There has been much in the news this year about alleged misbehaviors from long ago that are becoming known today in courtrooms and in public attention. This was brought to mind when one of the groomsmen offering a toast at the rehearsal dinner read from his iPad some texts by the groom from about 10 years earlier when the couple’s relationship was just forming. They were all heartwarming and reflected well on the subjects. All was good. But, they were a stark reminder of how persistent a trail we are leaving in our social media, email, texts, Slack, and other forms of electronic communication. Everyone now has audio and video recording capability in his or her pocket; nothing can be assumed to be off the record.
Of course you know that. But, how does it change governance in your business? As a founder, you must literally think before speaking. No idle off-color banter at a board meeting or manager’s meeting is safe from leakage and discovery. You have to assume your employees and your customers may someday have access to anything you say or write. And, if there’s a problem or grievance, it won’t just come back directly to you, it will get magnified by social sharing. Things can get out of hand quickly. Original context and intent get lost in translation. Nothing you say after the fact can erase the damage.
Even strategic deal discussions back and forth can present opportunities for problems. Written communications lack tone and can easily be misinterpreted. Threads get jumbled, sometimes across multiple channels. Exactly what is being agreed or promised can get misplaced in those channels. Even after a deal is memorialized in a formal contract, the first hiccup thereafter may result in dredging up early communications to back a particular position. You might have a problem when you intend to forward a factual email and accidentally grab one that says: “wow, these guys are really suckers.” Our fingers can move faster than our minds, and autocorrect can change meanings without our noticing.
It has always been good business practice to do what we say we will. We’re just no longer allowed to forget what we said or to hope that the other party forgets. If you negotiated over too much wine, you’re not excused. Everything is memorialized somewhere, even perhaps your lawyer’s hotel room.
Customer trust is hard to earn and easy to burn. It is necessary now to keep the proper perspective on every interaction your business has with your customers. Will they perceive that you are delivering the promised value? Is your marketing language backed up by your operational performance? Do you have technology and procedures in place that live up to your sales proposition? Are you using social media responsibly and responsively? If you live in Texas you see all the ads for Frost Bank’s superior customer service. When you are on hold in their call trees you hear that theme pounded into your head over and over again. I moved my banking from Frost in Austin to PNC in Atlanta this year. Due to a mistake by Frost, I’ve had at least 50 interactions with Frost on the sending end and PNC on the receiving side just to transfer an IRA. It’s a long and irrelevant story, but the amount of time and aggravation would cause me never to bank with Frost again. They can’t deliver on their service promise. My “personal banker” was no help at all because he required managerial approval for every little detail. Of course I have everything well documented in email threads, so this bad memory will live on.
Let’s keep in mind that companies and organizations continue to do stupid things. They NYT about a week ago had an article about a fraternity at Cal Polytechnic that for some school festival chose to dress up as gang members, including one guy in black face. What were they thinking? I’ve been active in fraternity affairs for a long time and have always been cognizant of risk mitigation. Every national fraternity that gets through an academic year without any hazing abuses, deaths, or criminal complaints breathes a sigh of relief. On balance I am very much a supporter of the Greek system on college campuses, but it’s not without challenges. As I was reading the NYT report on this particular incident and scrolling down the page on my iPad, I had only one thought on my mind – I sure hope this wasn’t a chapter of my fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha. And, toward the end, there we were. Lordy.
Your startup probably isn’t going to create that type of headline in the NYT, but your team has the capacity to be stupid. Young, energetic, overworked, alcohol or weed fueled 20-somethings that constitute much of the tech workforce are only slightly beyond college fraternities in life skills and mature judgment. As you scale, you can’t micromanage them. But, you must be vigilant about any situation that could lead to harassment claims or other out-of-bounds behavior. You may inadvertently give an excuse to an unhappy employee to make up unpleasant stories, or even to proliferate them through social channels. My suggestion is to make sure you have some rock-solid adult supervision somewhere on your org chart, even if only at a board or advisory level. That resource can prove invaluable when you have any sort of crisis.
We’re just beginning to see problems accelerate in the sharing economy, which depends on a level of societal trust and self-discipline that may or may not exist. You see the stories about Uber and Lyft, and, like me, you probably experience wide variations in the quality of their service. And, I’m sure their drivers can tell story after story about misbehaving riders. You see the TV camera on the dash that is recording your every action. You might yourself want to record some of those crazy drivers, which include taxis as much as ride shares. You might save a life, perhaps your own. For the next period of time we won’t be hearing much about this because the news cycles will be abuzz about electric scooter sharing. I first saw that service in Austin last week; it hasn’t yet made it to Atlanta to my knowledge, but it’s going to be the star of the technology circus for a while. It’s going to bring about a whole new battle between the aforementioned societal trust and regulators in the scooter departments of whatever governmental entities have authority over your neighborhood.
There is much discussion about privacy in the popular news media. based on an abundance of high-profile cybersecurity breaches. I am almost certain my tax returns from several years ago got onto the dark web due to email phishing that spread through one of the companies I was advising at the time. So far, I’ve seen no ill effects of that, but I remain quite vigilant by watching my financial accounts and by using monitoring services. I am generally comfortable with the extraction of data about me that enables information of interest and relevant ads to find me. It’s a fair bargain in my opinion for the value I derive from social media. I am much more concerned about the persistence of nearly all personal communications over decades and what that may portend for business and for human relationships as society evolves and trust erodes. There’s an extra risk factor lurking in your technology startup that is like a sleeper cell of bad guys. Your company’s and your individual Teflon will eventually be tested.