Love and forgiveness in Silicon Valley


(alternatively titled: Fear and Loathing in Las Appulous)

It’s Valentine’s Day, so it feels particularly appropriate to discuss the topic of love, as it applies to software. “Love and software?” you might ask, “What the F do those things have to do with one another?”

A lot, it turns out.

As our world becomes increasingly software-driven, we all are faced with dozens, if not hundreds, of software interactions every day. This reliance upon software necessarily leads to the act of discernment. We say to ourselves “this software is bad” a lot,  “this software is good” occasionally and, when presented with brilliance, “what software? I never noticed.”

From a technical standpoint, most software is replaceable, the functionality achievable in a number of ways, all leading to the same technical outcome. However, in practice, the interaction between software and the people who rely upon it is a huge determinant on whether software becomes Google or Alta Vista.

When humans interact with software, emotions become involved. Most of the time, the emotions are bland, minimal and fleeting. However, there are times when the emotions that are tapped are visceral and lasting.

Like when we feel like our privacy has been invaded.

Which brings us to Path and the “address book mess”

Over the past week, Path has gotten raked over the coals for not disclosing that they were uploading the entirety of your address book to their servers. The lack of disclosure was particularly alarming for many folks who saw in Path’s actions the echoes of the “ask for forgiveness, rather than permission” style of behavior that has propelled other companies, like Facebook, to the upper echelon of user engagement.

It all started with Arun’s post, where he shared his discovery. Path, to its credit, quickly responded by apologizing and deleting all of the data, but that wasn’t nearly enough for the press.

In short order, Nick Bilton weighed in on the recurring apologies of Silicon Valley, Michael Arrington and MG Siegler got into the mix and Dan Lyons dropped the bomb of an accusation that the shady research payouts of the early 2000’s have migrated to the tech blogs of today.

Now we’re finding out that many more apps have been guilty of this behavior and we’re sure that the list already uncovered isn’t close to comprehensive. To add even more complexity to the issue, we find that Apple has been allowing the sharing of address book and photo data, unprompted, despite previous statements indicating this would never happen.

We ask: What about the customers?

Lost in all of this mess has been the conversation about what really matters: what’s the impact on Path’s business of this mistake?

Arrington rightly pointed out that the unequivocal apology is the path of least resistance and the approach that seems to most often quell the mob mentality of bloggers etc.

Who cares if the bloggers have moved on however, if the people who were behind the downloads of Path have been forever scarred? If loyalty has been irrevocably damaged and won’t be restored?

In today’s fast-moving, “pushing-the-edge”, “maybe privacy is dead maybe it’s not” environment, the guiding principle seems to be “we have to do this because if we don’t we won’t grow fast enough”. That approach might have worked for Facebook, it might be fine for Path, but is it right for everyone? Can every app and startup afford to push the boundary and just apologize when they get caught being abusive?

We won’t know the extent of the lasting damage of this situation on Path’s brand and business for a while, but we have a good way of evaluating Path’s ability to weather the storm with the actual people using the app. Moreover, we find this benchmark to be true of every company designing for consumers in the modern day:

How many of your customers love you?

If Path has managed to earn a loyal group of app customers up until this point and a meaningful portion of them (let’s say  20%+) have really come to LOVE Path, we think the lasting impact of this snafu will be but a blip on the radar. The reason is this: customer loyalty is more emotional than logical. So, if Path has managed to strike an emotional chord with a meaningful portion of its customer base, then they’re good.

If they haven’t really resonated with their audience and connected on an emotional level however, the road forward will be a lot tougher going. The reputational damage and the impact of the noise in the media is more than enough for most casual app users to toss away their connection with the app. In a noisy world, why spend your time and risk your privacy for something that you weren’t that into to begin with?

Ignore the noise, focus on the LOVE.

Regardless of if sharing address books or personal data was the right thing to do, all innovators would be well-served by framing their decisions in the light of love:

  • Will this feature make my service so easy to use that they love me?
  • If I do this will it ever result in breaking their trust and weaken their love?
  • Would a company I loved do this to me?

We think there’s a lot more to building great companies than pushing features and getting numbers. We think great companies are great because their customers love them, often for life. We hope we’re building that kind of a company, are you?

Some related posts:

How to win a customer’s trust

Trust your customer, just because

I want to tell you a simple story about customer service and trust, inspired by a local coffee shop called Canal Street Coffee, run by a wonderful man named John.


I first discovered  Canal Street Coffee several weeks ago while wandering along the Burke Gilman trail, looking for a place to sit down, enjoy the sun and get some work done. I didn’t give much thought to the state of the cash in my wallet and it wasn’t until I’d placed my espresso order that I realized that there wasn’t a credit card processing machine in sight. I looked at John apologetically and asked, “You don’t take cards do you?”.

“Nope. Just cash, foreign currency and IOUs,” he replied.

I turned and was halfway through my, “I’ve got to go find a cash machine” response before it dawned on me that he’d said he took IOUs. I turned back, looked at him and he smiled, pulled a pen from his jar and wrote the amount I owed him on a scrap of a receipt before handing it to me.

“I’ve been handing out IOUs for 20 years and it’s never cost me a thing, near as I can tell,” John said to me.  I knew immediately that I would be back to repay him and that John was practicing something incredibly rare:

Placing trust in his customers. 

When John offered to accept an IOU he said implicitly: “I trust you to come back and do the right thing.” That simple action spoke volumes about what I could expect from him. It showed me that he was a person who thought about the long-run. It showed that he is in the business of providing not just coffee and a seat but a connection with his fellow man. It made me feel like a human being and it felt wonderful.

What companies trust you?

Think for a moment about how you would feel if you’d been in my shoes that day. I’ve relayed this story to a number of friends and they all say basically the same thing:

“Wow! No one does that. What a great way to treat a customer. I’m going to check it out.”

Are there companies that you do business with who have placed trust in you in a way that John did that day?

Nordstrom. REI.   Sadly, those  are the only two that come to mind for me.

What do you think of those companies?

I trust them to do the right thing

Give the gift of trust. Earn trust in return.

Many of you, our readers, are app developers running your own businesses. You have (hopefully) an ever-increasing group of customers. Do you think your customers trust you? Have you done anything to demonstrate that you’re trustworthy? Have you given your app customers the gift of trust?

We see lots of fantastic apps out there that act completely oblivious to the fact that there are real people using their software. Take a first step down the road of trust by engaging with your app users more. Ask them questions – trust them enough to give you real and honest feedback on your application. Demonstrate to them that you trust them with your time and that you trust their opinions.

In addition to getting excellent information, you’ll get something that is more valuable if you’re doing it right: the trust of your app users.

I keep going back to Canal Street Coffee and it’s not just for the coffee. It’s because I trust John. Make your app users feel the same way.