Don't feed the trolls: How to steer your start-up through online critics

You may not want to feed the trolls but there are steps you can take to manage them

Online criticism is here to stay. Learn how to handle it entrepreneur-style in these seven troll-squishing takeaways.

This is the third in a monthly series where I share my personal entrepreneurial journey. Month one: Making the leap from employee to founder. Month two: How to be a better decision-maker.

My first media publicity – ouch

One year after launching my start-up, iFLYflat, I scored my first online publicity. I was excited.

I quickly read the article with my heart racing, happy and satisfied that they had got all the facts right. The number of visits to my website spiked and it was like watching the stock market.

But soon my heart sank, and my heart rate spiked higher than the website hits when I started to read the comments.

“This business is a crock of s#*t. I can book flights myself, why would I pay them?”

“These types of schemes come along every so often and later fall over, leaving tears before the flight. Try at your own risk.”

One of the most interesting was: “It’s a Ponzi scheme. He takes all your money and buys the tickets – stay away."

I was shocked.

For a brief moment, I had to question if I had got it all wrong. Is this feedback? Why would they think this way?

It was the start of a journey into the recognition that building a business is more than just getting the product or service right – it’s about dealing with people! And sometimes that includes people who question why your business should even operate.

It is a hidden psychological test for any new business owner: putting yourself out there to attract business is an open invitation for people to comment as they like.

Moving from a professional environment to the ‘zoo’

Coming from a professional background, perhaps I was spoilt.

Prior to starting iFLYflat, I worked at Macquarie Bank for more than 10 years – a company famous for its strict psychometric and skills assessment, which produces an environment of professional, smart and ambitious people.

During my time, Macquarie was a place where communications were considered and respectful, where knowledge and understanding were on the same page.

Compared to Macquarie, communicating with the public online seems like a zoo.

Why is that? People have a louder voice online, an equal representation. Each comment (good, bad or stupid) gets its own line on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Online gives a cloak of anonymity, which allows behaviour that people wouldn’t exhibit elsewhere and words you wouldn’t hear come out of their mouths in real life.

In the ‘real’ world

I wonder what would happen if online comments were exhibited in the “real world”. If that happened, you would probably ignore them, turn your back and talk to someone else. Or at the extreme, you might even consider punching them in the face if they were offensive.

Given that social criticism is here to stay, however, hopefully you can learn from my experience. Read on for seven takeaways below.

1. There is an information mismatch

They know a little bit about you – but you don’t know anything about them apart from a name, real or not. The difficulty in that is that you cannot craft your responses to help them understand your side of the view better.

For example, if you knew you were talking to a lawyer, you could assume a certain level of knowledge and provide a constructive argument or examples in a way you think they might understand. If you knew you were talking to a student, you could tailor your response appropriately.

When just talking to a name, it could be anyone from anywhere in the world.

2. There is a stakes mismatch

You are representing your brand and they are just representing themselves.

The exchange is unfair; it is as if you have one hand tied to a chair. The public can say what it likes, but as a business owner you need to keep your voice professional.

Not surprisingly, LinkedIn commenters tend to be the most behaved –  posters are generally representing their professional selves. Facebook and news website comments are the worst as true identities are often unknown.

3. It’s not personal

Be consistent and confident with your communications – it is not personal. You don’t know them and they don’t know you.

Have a bit of fun with it. Remember, there is an information mismatch regardless of their intention.

Creating a business is hard and this is just one of the speed bumps – let the suspension deal with it while you continue to concentrate on driving to the goal.

4. You’re not crazy

You may at times question your sanity, thinking, “Are you serious, someone wrote this? “Why would they think that? What is he referring to – I didn’t even write that in the article!”

How do you feel? Surprised, shocked, hurtful, deflated? It is normal and okay to feel that; you are only human.

So breathe, walk away and take a minute. Don’t react in the heat of the moment.

5. There are ways you can react

Choose to either reply, ask to take the conversation offline, hide the comment or use the “report comment” function of the social media platform if it is abusive.
Don’t just ignore it – take some action. Depending on your personality type, leaving a bad comment unresolved may bother you as you will continue to think about it as an incomplete task.

A simple, “We don’t agree but thanks for your personal thoughts” is enough to provide closure on your side. If they respond back, you can ignore them.

It is just their own opinion and you don’t need to make them understand or win the discussion. It is their problem, not yours.

As your community group builds, you will find that they will help out and often settle the culprit down.

6. Public commentary is not all bad

I’ve received many messages of support, admiration and thanks. This is an amazing part of the entrepreneurial journey and many strangers will connect and give you support.
They will take time to understand what you are doing and give constructive and useful feedback.

I recently received this direct message, which touched my heart:

“Thanks for connecting. I must say you have one of the best business models I’ve seen… You’ve got the recurring revenue, the ‘something for nothing’ value proposition and it’s glamourous. Love it, well done.”

I take energy from supportive messages like that every day.

7. It is a percentage game

Like the typical bell curve, as your audience and impact grows, expect there will be haters, neutral people and supporters. Expect to come across them, daily, weekly and monthly.
Harness the good stuff to power you towards your goals.

Don’t be distracted and continue to press on to getting the important things completed, and take your business into the stratosphere, not to prove them wrong, but to prove you right.

Let me know what experiences you’ve had, and share how you are dealing with them in the comments below. No trolls, please.

Steve Hui CPA is the CEO and founder of successful start-up

Next month: Hui writes about how to answer the constant question, “How is it going?”

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