We want to write a post about the goodness of our fans and their effect on our lives. We really do have the best customers and fans in the world.
Last week, I was working the register for an entire shift. I usually don’t work the register for such a long period, but we’ve been getting back into daily operations to see what we can improve on for the new store.
In three separate instances, a customer randomly tells me that we’re doing a great job and that we are onto something. The first time I heard it, I was just in shock. I asked her about what prompted her comment and she said, “I read some comments about Boba Guys online.” I asked her to elaborate and she said, “For a bubble tea place, you sure have some haters.” I heard the same sentiment again an hour later.
Then, one of our regulars comes in. She has been coming in for a really long time, ever since we opened the shop last June. Our conversations usually stay at the surface level of shared pleasantries. However, it was different that day. She randomly says, “I read a couple reviews and I am sad to see what some people write about you. They don’t get what you guys are about. Don’t mind them.” My heart grew three times that day. It was what we needed to hear at that moment.
You see, public perception is a topic that few business owners ever write about. Some might say it’s a bit too transparent. But we’re not writing just to our fans, we’re writing for small business owners across America.
The reality is that us business owners know what people say about us (well, the ones that care do). Many of you know that Bin and I come from the corporate world. In both the corporate world and business school, you are conditioned to withstand criticism. You develop very, very thick skin. But we’re all human at the end of the day, so believe it or not– we have feelings!
When Bin and I started Boba Guys and subsequently chose to use #FightThePowder and #DoTheRightThing as our Kickstarter taglines, we knew our positioning could potentially polarize the public. Some people get what we do, others don’t. By saying we are the highest quality boba shop in the world and that we don’t use powders, it is drawing attention to the fact that other shops use ingredients of lesser quality. We understand how it sounds.
To us, it’s less about something being inferior, but rather it’s about positioning. In fact, we always get asked about our favorite boba shops and we openly recommend them (for the record, we like Wonderful Foods in SF and Half & Half in SoCal, but Sharetea is our favorite mega chain). We emphasize quality because that helps us achieve our mission in changing perceptions in boba and tea– it’s an industry where quality is not expected. If we went with a low-cost strategy, then we’d be no different than most of the boba shops in the world.
In business school, I was taught that all companies make a trade-off between cost and quality. You almost always get what you pay for (despite what my Asian relatives think!) And if there’s arbitrage, it won’t last long because people will surely find it and abuse it until the opportunity is gone. In a pseudo-free market, you are only successful if your product is in demand despite viable alternatives.
And that’s what struck me this weekend when our fans gave us words of encouragement. It is also what we’re learning through the outpour of support for our Kickstarter campaign. In a sea of cynics, we are connecting with people who truly care about quality and running a business responsibly.
What Bin and I never talk about (until now) are the internet trollz and taunting phone calls that we– yes, a boba shop– receive. And it’s usually from other Asian Americans! It’s amusing to us as Bin and I came from a world where the best businesses or brands are typically very polarizing. Usually, it’s a good sign when a brand is loved or hated. (Just make sure you are loved by enough people!) We can live with unwarranted criticism as it is a result of our positioning. We want to change the industry, so it will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers. We don’t mind the label of “hipster boba” if that means we’re the highest quality boba in the world!
Our real concern is when people call out specific members of staff in a public forum. This is in addition to the racial comments we read online or hear in person. To put it mildly, that is not cool. It’s been done several times and probably countless more if we had more time to track things down. It is cyberbullying and passive-aggressive. One of our core values is giving a damn and that means standing up for other small businesses who are exposed to these people.
As we have said since our GOOD magazine articles, we’re about changing perceptions and bridging cultures. To us, cyberbullying and trolling is almost as bad as blatant racism because it’s divisive without accountability. Yes, by writing this, we are antagonizing cyberbullies and internet trollz 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 the waiter gave me attitude. We write because we think, “Surely, I’m going to show them!” In reality, it doesn’t prove anything and it isn’t constructive at all. The owners, if they even care, will read the review and offer an apology and an offer to make it right. However, the issue, if valid, is usually something systemic, so the one review won’t change the business overnight. But the waiter was often my true target of contempt. It’s like I want him or her to get fired over spilled milk (ironically, that did happen one time). That was just mean-spirited and immature.
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. As some of you know, my father is a proud bus driver for the great city of San Francisco. 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 yes, I do feel strongly about this topic!
The point of this is to thank our fans for the timely vote of confidence and to continue channeling our passion into our mission: bridging cultures to change the way people think about boba and tea. There are days when Bin and I feel as though the mission isn’t worth it. We hear the cynics. After all, what’s wrong with cheap snacks and drinks? Why can’t we just make cute food and leave it at that? Why do we have to be the ones that challenge the status quo and do the right thing?
The reason we keep going is because change is inevitable and the end result (i.e. social change) is worth it. Through Boba Guys, we’ve met other great entrepreneurs who share the same desire to bridge cultures, many of whom encounter the same sentiment. We cannot stop because of internet trolls. If we want a better world– one with more understanding and compassion– then we need to #DoTheRightThing and change culture.
We say to our fans, team, and entrepreneurs who face social adversity, keep ya head up!
“Keep ya head up, oooo child things are gonna get easier
Ooooo child things are gonna get brighter” - Tupac