This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
In case you hadn’t seen, a new startup called Bodega launched this week, its headline claiming to want to “make mom and pop stores obsolete.” Much to the surprise of the founders and investors, but not surprising to the rest of the internet, it was not well received.
As expected, the founders wrote an apology on Medium. Which, as far as apologies go, kinda sucked. Setting aside the idea of rebranding a mini-bar and putting it in apartment buildings and street corners and calling it disruption, there are some important lessons that can be learned from their poor apology that can be particularly important for well-meaning white people to understand when they unintentionally offend. Here are my key takeaways:
1. “I Didn’t Mean To” Doesn’t Matter
“Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas…”
Most of the post was focused on helping people understand what they were really trying to do. Why they weren’t super evil, and all the steps that they took, and basically, “I know we seemed like assholes, but we’re not! Or, at least, we didn’t mean to be!”
But here’s the thing — just cause you didn’t mean to hurt someone doesn’t mean you didn’t actually hurt them.
But if you spend all your time explaining what you meant to do — you’re spending all your effort on trying to make yourself look less bad, and make yourself feel less bad. That may do it for you, but then your apology is not about actually making the person you offended feel any better. Which leads me to…
2. Make Your Apology About Those You Offended, Not About You.
Look, even the most habituated filter bubble dweller knows that we’re living in some pretty charged times. DACA being revoked, anthem protests, Charlottesville…We’ve been living under a system designed by white people, for white people, and people are beginning to push back hard on this. Then when you roll out your big disruptive product that sounds like it’s meant to disrupt mom and pop stores that are run by the very people who are already feeling under attack, and then you make your apology more about making yourself look less bad rather than making the people you offended feel better? Well, that’s telling me that you’re less concerned about why we feel under attack, and more about making sure that you’re protecting your position of privilege. That’s a swing and a miss.
3. Show You Actually Understand The Problem
The part we’re all really good at when it comes to communication is the talking part, and the part we really generally suck at is the listening part. And as any marriage counselor will tell you, one great hack to help people know that you’re listening to what someone is saying is if you’re able to repeat back to someone what they’re saying. This doesn’t mean you have to agree, but this simple act of acknowledgement goes a long way when you’re trying to communicate. What happens when you don’t acknowledge someone’s point? Well, that person will typically try to say it in different ways, louder, and with more force. When two people continue to fail to show that they’ve heard each other, you get two people who are just shouting past each other.
Bodega’s apology showed that they spent the whole afternoon trying to figure out how to make themselves look less shitty, and almost no time in understanding why they looked shitty in the first place. A simple, “Wow, we get it, we totally came off as douchebags trying to put out of business a beloved institution in the name of selfish ambition in communities where people have always felt under siege already” would have gone a long way.
4. It Wasn’t About The Name
The fact that they thought it was just about the name further reinforced the notion that they STILL do not understand what happened. It’s about a community that is currently under attack by its own government, by white supremacists who would like to see them gone from the country. And while I know they are not part of that movement, do they not understand how it appears to these communities of color when, in the midst of this political climate, a white Google alum (same Google that recently dealt with “the memo”) says that they launched a company that’s going to destroy their livelihood? The appropriation of the name is bad, but it’s so much deeper than that.
5. Don’t Double Talk — We Can See Through It
I get it. The headline was meant to be sensationalist and they have no control over it. But when I read this from the article (which is attributed as a direct quote from you, BTW):
“The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” McDonald says. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”
And this from your apology post:
Definitely not. Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal.
Well, those two things both can’t be true. Which was it? When I read those two, that says to me that you still don’t actually understand why people are pissed, and you’re just trying to spin things again to make yourself look less bad rather than actually trying to understand the problem and be a part of the solution.
6. Diversity Is Good For Business
Diversity initiatives were socially important 20–30 years ago as they sought to level the playing field after centuries of disparity. But today, where nearly half of youth are multicultural, it’s more than just socially important — it’s commercially important. If you don’t understand half of your customer base, you are not going to be successful. Simple as that.
I don’t know any of the people involved with Bodega personally, but follow many of its investors, and have found them all to be incredibly thoughtful progressives who care about and have been outspoken about the importance of diversity. Yet all of them were clearly blindsided by the reaction. Hunter Walk wrote a very sincere, introspective post on his own process. I think this just goes to show, even the most intelligent, well meaning people can have severe blindspots — all of our vision is colored by our own limited points of view. As entrepreneurs, we know that if someone is a big picture thinker, you often want to pair her with someone who may be more operationally focused. In the same way we understand the value of building teams around diverse skill sets, we need to build teams with diverse life experiences so that we can better meet the needs of the actual customer. In hindsight, it’s really not that surprising that a white founder, with a team of white investors, did not fully anticipate the backlash that would come from the community.
7. Actually Talk To People
Building a diverse team doesn’t happen overnight. And when you’re just a small nimble team largely built from within your social network, it’s probably not going to be super diverse. What then?
Steve Blank started a movement that got entrepreneurs out of their garages and talking to actual customers to understand their needs, and most of Silicon Valley understands the value. It’s clear from reading the founder’s apology that they didn’t actually get out and talk to people to better understand how they messed up. Instead, it seems, they probably huddled up, shellshocked, with the group of non-diverse investors to figure out how to properly respond. Instead, if you prioritize understanding and long-term solutions above reputation triage, then your immediate first steps would be to seek out perspectives to help you understand. Go talk to people. Reach out to those people you’ve offended. I remember the disastrous launch of Bustle, but recently listened to how Bryan Goldberg then went on to build relationships with all of his critics to better understand where he went wrong. In the process, he gained better understanding and earned credibility through his actions. While our instincts are self-preservations, if you take a moment and prioritize the offended people above your own reputation, you will find that, in the long run, it actually helps your reputation.
A Good Apology?
Rather than just shout from the peanut gallery, I’d offer up an example for what might be a better apology:
Sorry. We messed up. By naming our company Bodega, and positioning the company to disrupt mom and pop stores — the very stores that serve as important commercial and social cornerstones for urban communities — we set ourselves up for some much deserved blowback and derision. We apologize for our offensive launch, and complete misunderstanding of the importance bodegas play in the community.
We still believe the value in what we’re doing, and do believe there’s a way where we can partner and be a net-positive in strengthening communities, but we have a lot of work to do to get there, and a lot more work to do better understand those dynamics, and are committed to doing so. We’ll share transparently as we embark on that journey, but for now, this is about the communities that felt under attack by our product and our launch, and how very sorry we are. We want to be part of the solution, not the problem, and commit to doing so. We clearly failed to do so today, and are committed to finding a path where we can be a part of strengthening communities rather than disrupting them.
A Must Watch Video
Listen, this stuff is tricky. Understanding the nuances of race relations, culture, implicit bias, power dynamics. It’s a lot to layer on top of the already difficult task of launching and building a company! BUT, understanding how to talk to people when you’ve offended them actually isn’t nearly as hard as it often seems, and there are a lot of lessons we can take away from Bodega’s poor launch and poorer apology.
I’ll leave you with this video my former colleague, the ridiculously talented, smart, insightful and empathetic Franchesca Ramsey, made almost exactly four years ago, which should really be required viewing for anyone who may some day screw up and need to apologize. VCs — I think this is a must watch for all of your portfolio companies:
Mike is chief product officer at mitú. Previously Mike served as head of product at Upworthy as well as Defy Media, and is a die hard Sixers and Eagles fan. You can follow him at @biggiesu