This past weekend, Angel-funded startup AllThis made headlines across the internet for their seemingly sketchy practices. In short, the service allows people to ‘buy time’ from other people using virtual currency. I happen to find the idea interesting, but that’s not the point of this article. An issue came up with their ‘company practices’ when high-profile users like Joel Haussman found his twitter picture and a ‘non-member’ profile on the company’s site. He, along with several other digerati, were upset that a company was ‘selling their time’ without permission. He emailed and publicly tweeted the company concerning the issue, accusing them of “scraping twitter profiles” and breaking copyright laws on his photo.
Stop. Breath. Examine the options.
This is a really great opportunity for a company – yeah, that’s right, a great opportunity. You know that old saying “All press is good press,” well it’s true, if used correctly. AllThis has a personal audience with a dozen or so digerati, their service has been exposed, and now it’s just a question of showing your character. When a user, high-profile or not, complains directly to you about your company, it is an opportunity to create a user for life. If you demonstrate the quick ability to react to a user’s needs – as any startup should be ready to do, since speed is one of a startup’s greatest assets – they will not just walk away.
While working at a Paris-based startup, we had a user go full-Rambo on our startup: he trashed us in the AppStore, trashed us online, and sent a long angry email to our contact email address, which the whole company receives copies of. Luckily, given the time-zone, this happened early in the morning. As Community Manager, I approached the CTO, lead developer, and product manager at once to examine the options and the impact. We found a quick work-around that didn’t affect our company’s vision or strategy, made it a Code Red and I responded to the user’s email within two hours with a screenshot of the problem resolved, a sincere apology, and a request that he try the product one more time to see if he liked it. Needless to say, he’s still a user today (I checked), he changed his AppStore rating from 1 star to 5 stars with a comment explaining how we had responded to his complaints in hours, and all was well.
AllThis – a beautiful example of what NOT to do
Now, The Rude Baguette has seen bad PR in the past – and let me tell you, it’s not a SMART bet, and it won’t get you a second DATE anytime soon *wink* *wink*. I think AllThis might take the cake :
Phase 1 – Pseudo-Ignorance: During last weekend, as tweets slowly poured into the @AllThis inbox, the initial responses are appealing:
@joelhousman No scraping. Joel, would you like your allthis page removed?—
(@allthis) December 19, 2011
This is clearly a bad way to react – acting as if you don’t understand the back-end of what you’re doing. I think this was a misguided attempt to pacify the issue… but the issue continued on
Phase 2 – Stooping to their Level: When a user is angry at you, they are going to stoop to a lower level of discourse – insulting, threats, snide comments, etc. This is the user’s right. Here’s the deal: you CANNOT stoop to their level – you cannot sound like a user, because then you are less than a company. You must sound composed, prepared, and humble. Unfortunately, AllThis missed the crash course on responding to user complaints:
@dakami No, YOU would be selling YOUR time if you ever joined. There's a difference between an exchange and a store. We are an exchange.—
(@allthis) December 21, 2011
At this point, the best thing to do is shut up for two days, publish a public blog post saying that the founders were busy raising money, and that a community manager intern was responding without consulting the men in charge. This, of course, would be false, but you could save a little face by doing so. You’ve already lost the digerati, because either you didn’t have enough managerial oversight to pay attention to what was happening with your company after launching, but you may still be able to retain users and recover with an extensive ‘re-launch’ 6 months down the road.
What’s Phase 3 going to be?
At this point, the level of Amazing PR would be impressing for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, let alone a startup – and given their previous PR-manship, I would be surprised to see them pull something out of their behinds. So let’s look at some practical options, from most extreme to least extreme (and from most likely to least likely):
- Call it a day – Look on the bright side, kid: you got an article in Mashable and Venturebeat, and you got to play startup for a week. But let’s be real: Tech Bloggers are actually hunting you down, tracking your DNS and info, with the express purpose of burning you for all time. Why not shut the site down, erase this from your record, and say you did a year abroad helping Tsunami victims in the Philippines?
- Time to Change your Names – I don’t mean your name, I just mean the site. The AllThis domain name is worth about as much as the “MySpace” domain name – the name is so scarred, that even a non-profit saving seals called AllThis would rather go with BabySeals.net than risk using your domain name.
- Major Apology + Major Revamp – perhaps you still believe in the marketplace. Maybe, just maybe, the idea is still great enough that people will adopt it. Well, either way, someone’s got to go: make up an employee and fire them, publish a major post detailing the changes you are going to make and the mistakes you made, and hope that people will lose interest when they see you are sane and in 3 month’s time you can re-launch with the hopes that Mark Zuckerberg will pull a Gerard Depardieu in the next week, pulling attention away from you to the point of Amnesia… “Wait, wasn’t there a company 3 months ago called AllThis right before Mark Zuckerberg pissed on an airplain?” “I don’t know, but let’s check out that video on YouTube again!”
A Lesson For Other Startups
To all you pre-PR startups out there: head this warning – angry users are the best thing that can ever happen to you. It’s like on YouTube: your video isn’t popular until someone comments about how your video relates to Justin Bieber, and then someone else complains that people only talk about Justin Bieber on the internet. People that are angry are impassioned, and this is the best thing you can hope for in users. Take those angry users, and turn them into ambassadors by demonstrating not only the value of your product, but the value of your team. In short, don’t “AllThis” up your PR.