I debated writing about this topic for a very long time as the subject matter is highly-sensitive, especially in the food space. However, after writing about this on my startup's blog, I was told it was something the greater public could find useful. Here is my take on how to win against internet bullies and trolls...
Trolls will be trolls and bullies will be bullies. Anyone who owns a business that touches the internet is acutely aware of this. Before starting Boba Guys, a food and beverage concept, my friends warned me that I should not get into the food business if I was easily offended or hurt. They said, "Everyone's a critic because everyone eats." They are right, but that's not what concerns me.
A cyberbully recently posted a picture of our employee online for poor service and she has felt uncomfortable ever since. I knew what I had to do. I want to spare the details because the point is not to call out the bully. My intention is to draw more attention to cyberbullying in the context of small business in hopes to persuade one less person from abusing our privilege of free speech. I am writing this for all businesses (and people) who have been hurt by mean-spirited individuals on the internet including our beloved employee.
At best, cyberbullying and trolling is passive-aggressive. And with the internet and ubiquity of social networks, passing judgment without recourse has never been easier. My concern is that there is little accountability for online bullies or internet trolls. One can easily hide behind anonymous profiles, even ones with "real names." An individual can say whatever they want and possibly endanger the well-being of a business by simply spreading false rumors.
Anonymity exists to protect individuals from a business owner who wants to retaliate, but business owners rarely have the time to track down a person for a specific review or comment. If one wants to truly send a message to the business owner, the best way is to take your money elsewhere. It is likely that a bad business treated others poorly as well. Their time will come. Provide constructive feedback only if you genuinely believe you want to help them improve their business.
The reality is that most motivated business owners know what people say about them. We internalize 80 percent of the feedback. The last 20 percent is usually filtered out because it's either mean-spirited or incomprehensible. Bottom line: we hear you.
When we started Boba Guys, we posted the graphic above. It summed up what we were all about. We were setting a new standard of quality for the industry -- and it didn't sit well with some people, namely old guards from the industry and traditionalists. Since our opening last year, we received quite a few pieces of hate mail and trolling comments. When we recently announced that we are opening our second store, more trolls appeared. Truth be told, it's amusing to us because both my business partner and I believe the best businesses or brands are typically very polarizing. Usually, it's a good sign when a brand is loved and hated at the same time. (Just make sure you are loved by enough people!) We want to change the industry, so it will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers as some are uncomfortable with change.
As we have said since our GOOD magazine articles, we're about changing perceptions and bridging cultures. To us, cyberbullying and trolling is worse than calling us vile names in person because it's divisive without accountability. One cannot bridge anything if there is a constant divide. Yes, by writing this, we are antagonizing cyberbullies and internet trolls which isn't exactly building bridges-- but it comes from a spirit of love like a big internet noogie! Sadly, we all know these people.
At one point in my life, it was me. I was that guy, the person who would post a one-star review simply because I waited too long or someone gave me attitude. I get home and say to myself, "Surely, I'm going to show them!" In reality, it didn't show anyone anything other than how spiteful I was-- like I had it out for the employee or business. It's like I want him or her to get fired over spilt milk (ironically, that did happen one time). That was just mean-spirited and immature. That type of review doesn't make anyone or anything better. Most owners will read the review and offer an apology and an offer to make it right. But my gripe, while sometimes valid, was usually about something systemic, so the one review won't change the business overnight.
The reality is that my critiques were a myopic instrument of power. It was my way of feeling better about myself. It's why people yell at customer service reps over the phone, even if the rep has nothing to do with the issue. We just want someone to vent at so we can feel better. My mom, bless her soul, is a customer service rep at a telecom who deals with the crazy shenanigans from people all over the country, so these insensitivities hit close to home.
So how does this all tie together? As an entrepreneur, life can get really lonely. My business partner and I have our team, but that's it. It's very different when you have the backing of a larger company. In a small business, every little detail matters and every battle feels like a war. After speaking with entrepreneurs all over the country, a common experience emerged: self-doubt caused by detractors. For a while, we let the bullies seed doubt in our minds. Even I sometimes thought to myself, "Maybe this isn't worth it. I have a great corporate career and someone else can carry the torch." But over time, I learned that the bullies and trolls came out of the woodwork every time we did something positive or hit a major milestone. In some cases, bullying and trolling is a sign of success. Sadly, there will always be individuals who cannot relish in other's triumphs.
If you and your business is going through the same thing, we want to offer words of encouragement. As the great poet of our time Tupac says, "Keep Ya Head Up."
The sad beauty of the internet is that every voice can be heard, even malicious ones. It is only until I believed this fundamental truth that I truly felt satisfied as a small business owner and entrepreneur. It's National Small Business Week and we are told that small businesses are the engine that keeps local communities vibrant and economy going. You are doing something positive for the world. The bullies and trolls are not. It's as simple as that. If we let them bring our spirits down, then they win. If we use their words of vitriol as kindling to ignite our souls, then we win. They will stop when they realize their negativity only makes us stronger.
And that's how you win against bullies and trolls.