I was angry and frustrated. A customer, with whom my company and I have been working for 21 months, had seemingly trashed my company (along with the blockchain technology itself) publicly in an article. Yet, when I spoke to her, I found out that what was stated in the post was not what she said at all. Still, there were lessons that I learned about how I, my company, and even the entire blockchain community can and should do a better job of making sure that people understand the very real potential of blockchain tech.
It all started in 2018. That was when I visited Vermont, the U.S. state that signed the first blockchain law into existence. While the governor was very hospitable and willing to innovate at that time, he wasn’t altogether tech-savvy, and he had many other priorities to address. After visiting a city clerk office that, with its old computers and loads of paperwork, felt like it came out of the 80s, it dawned on me that it was unlikely we would ever see any blockchain adoption or even a pilot program here.
Selling to governments takes a long, long time. Thus, it has never been the end goal for my company. Still, the social impact that could come from having our infrastructure of distributed ledger technology utilized by land registries aligns with our vision.
Much to my company’s surprise, however, the pilot program in Vermont was announced, and the first transfer of a physical asset on the blockchain happened in the U.S. in early 2018. The transaction is verifiable on the public blockchain. Many startups ‘fake it till you make it.’ However, this is not the case in the blockchain space. The transactions are publicly available, and the records are immutable. It either works, or it doesn’t.
Although the process was very slow, we achieved tremendous success in working with the authorities in South Burlington. The city clerk went through all stages of the pilot program, and hundreds of real grant deeds were recorded on the blockchain via our interface.
After reading the article mentioned earlier, we reached out to our customer and asked if her statements were true. We shared how disappointing it was to learn about her supposed preference for using paper over blockchain technology. As you can imagine, I felt relief when the city clerk confirmed that her statements were misinterpreted.
Even so, it made me step back and ask myself, “In the battle to prove the value proposition of such an emerging technology, were we too “overzealous?””
The incident even made me think of abandoning this side of the business. However, I decided that I cannot abandon a working product that can have an enormous social impact. In developing countries, there is $9 trillion worth of unrecorded land. In other countries, registries are corrupted. In the United States, fraud in the real estate industry doubles each year. In these cases, the use of blockchain tech can help.
That said, the criticism was a wake-up call for my team and me. Even if there is tremendous value in the application of blockchain technology, communicating that value gets tricky. After all, if everything is going well, it is hard to prove the value of a security system. A government entity cannot truly know the value of security until its system gets hacked, such as what happened with the city of Baltimore.
Among faithful blockchain technology supporters (including companies that are implementing the technology in innovative ways), there are few doubts that the tech will dramatically affect the world someday. However, the ordinary person still cannot visualize the consequences. To reach its intended goal, my company must dedicate energy to shaping and refining the message.
Even though the bad press made me hesitate, it also taught me lessons on how to handle a crisis when the eyes of international media companies and influencers are on you and your startup.
4 Lessons I Learned From This Experience:
1. Exhibiting Consistency, Persistency, And Transparency Pays Off
We are lucky to have a supportive, large community of crypto enthusiasts around the world who are active on social media platforms like Twitter. When you consistently display the qualities of leadership and transparency, people remember it. If you have been working hard and have demonstrated real results, the community will be able to see past ambiguous statements that set out to prove a preset narrative.
2. Do Not React Too Quickly
Even though I felt very angry with the bad press, I reached out to the customer and politely asked why she said she would not buy the product. She shared that what she had said was misconstrued and that she never intended to stop working with my company, even though we needed further improvement of the product. I felt relieved to hear this.
The customer is willing to accelerate her conversation with my company to understand the value proposition of blockchain technology. Had we reacted immediately, we might have not only damaged our current relationship but also jeopardized potential future ones.
3. Leverage The Bad Press To Improve
Bad press, while frustrating, is becoming less relevant for entrepreneurs. Modern consumers have more power to get information from a variety of sources. However, entrepreneurs can use such situations to their advantage. In my case, I used the bad publicity as an opportunity to reflect on what my company and I might do better, and it helped me build a stronger relationship with my customer at the same time.
4. Be Faithful To Your Mission
If your mission is not as self-serving as the one of Adam Neumann of WeWork (Neumann aimed to become the first trillionaire), then it is okay to be reasonably crazy and “overzealous.”
Changing the world is not for everyone. However, as long as you are trying to make a positive and real difference in people’s lives, situations such as negative press can actually gain you the support of advisors and investors. A case like this can also offer an opportunity for you to see how your team rises to the occasion.
Steve Jobs’ story particularly inspires me. Many of us remember Steve Jobs as an icon of innovation, but even he encountered doubters in his early stages of success. In a 1985 Playboy interview, Jobs was asked why anyone would consider buying a computer: “Aren’t you asking home-computer buyers to invest $3000 in what is essentially an act of faith?” To this question, Jobs responded:
In the future, it won’t be an act of faith. The hard part of what we’re up against now is that people ask you about specifics and you can’t tell them. A hundred years ago, if somebody had asked Alexander Graham Bell, “What are you going to be able to do with a telephone?” he wouldn’t have been able to tell him the ways the telephone would affect the world.
And in 1998, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman stated, “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine.” I do not have to go into detail about how incorrect Krugman was with that statement.
The point is that, due to a lack of foresight, there is often doubt regarding the potential of new technology. For now, the general public is having a hard time visualizing a decentralized future. The naysayers from decades ago would be shocked to learn that both the computer and the telephone have been combined into one product that somebody can carry in a pocket. Today, I see the same behavior being exhibited toward blockchain technology.
It might make them seem crazy or even “overzealous,” but people need to have aspirations. Aspirations are what drive innovation. Through our dedication and hard work, we can achieve lofty goals that may have previously seemed impossible to reach. So, despite the bad press, I stand by my mission. I call on the startups with real-world applications of blockchain technology and the broader blockchain community to support one another and to do a better job when it comes to educating the public about the benefits of blockchain tech. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.