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The enemy

opinion  Paul Jarvis · Nov 17, 2019

This post was originally published on my now-defunct personal site. It’s been republished here on Fathom as the ideas found within it have informed and inspired our approach to business, privacy and philosophy.

I’ve noticed a concerning trend lately: small business owners who sell anything are being seen and labelled as the enemy by some folks online. The logic I assume goes: a few people online do bad things (like promoting their products every 30 minutes to their list or making it hard/impossible to get refunds), therefore everyone who does anything online is currently doing bad things and must be punished!

So small business owners who sell things online also get this “enemy” label simply because they send emails to a list of people who’ve freely signed up for their newsletter, or follow them on social (where they mention products they’ve proudly built), or bought a legitimate online product from them.

Adam Wathan tweeted about this a while back and it resonated hard with me (and many, many others). It’s not easy to run a tiny online business, because making sustainable money requires so much luck and timing (and work). Not to mention needing to deal with the fallout of constant harsh criticism and complaints that actually harm your business—like reporting spam that isn’t or reporting fraud on purchases that weren’t fraud. When really, it’s easier to click unsubscribe or ask for a refund. Adam runs a super successful business, creates and sells amazingly valuable products, and contributes freely to the community he serves. Adam’s not alone either, that’s just one example of what I’ve been hearing more and more lately from other business owners.

Another friend (Cait Flanders) told me, “I'm tired of doing all the emotional labour it takes to consider what people will do and how they will react.” She’s right, and I feel this to my core. My own writing and voice has changed considerably because of it. Every joke, every bit of sarcasm, every weird bit of what’s honestly who I am as a human that I want to share, I consider this first and remove it if I think it’ll get a negative reaction (which means removing basically everything). Cait and I talked about this and she does similar—there is so much emotional labour that goes into writing, then considering reactions, then adjusting, then second-guessing and adjusting again... all before we publish a single word. It can be exhausting. And feels like fighting a losing battle.

It’s not just that small, online business owners are getting their feelings hurt (which is valid, of course, but not the only issue). There are also significant consequences to being lumped together with bad people doing bad things for money online.

I even received an email from my mailing list provider the other day that my welcome email had a higher rate of abuse complaints than they allow. This isn’t Mailchimp’s fault either—they’re looking out for the sender reputation of their service and their customers. The problem is that people are freely signing up for my list, getting my welcome email, disliking it for some reason, then marking it as spam (when it’s clearly not—spam is email you get without asking for it). It’s totally demoralizing, because my welcome email was something I was quite proud of, and has been talked about all over the internet as something unique and interesting. And, of course, I teach an online course about using Mailchimp... the irony here is not lost on me.

In the end, I axed: the silly tattoo story (which I felt was on-brand and truly me since I have a lot of tattoos), a single swear word I used (purposefully), toned down my voice and very clearly remind people of the specific URL they used to sign up to my list. The experience of signing up for my mailing list, my most valued part of my business, is now diminished because it has to be if it’s to keep existing. But it did bring my “spam” rate down to zero.

Another example of small business owners being treated as the enemy is customers filing charge disputes or reporting payments as fraud for online purchases of courses or software that they paid for and are legitimate products. This happens at least once a month for me. For myself and many other business owners though, our refund policy is simple: if you don’t want what you paid for, we don’t want your money within 30 days (ample time to try something). Ask for a refund and it’ll be processed (I’ve never once denied a refund, nor has anyone else I know that sells things). I don’t care that you can’t “return” a digital product or that 4 years have passed. I just give you your money back, quickly. But instead of asking first, some people go straight to filing a credit card or payment processing dispute, which hurts my reputation with credit card companies and processing companies like Paypal and Stripe. Which is unfortunate because filing disputes requires significant work and mental bandwidth to deal with (whereas refunding money is simple and doesn’t bother me at all).

Every now and then I hear from people that this is the main reason they don’t start an online business. They don’t want to deal with negative reactions and negative consequences of creating and selling something on the internet. Which is truly a shame because I highly doubt that real scammers and spammers consider or worry about this. So all this label of “all online businesses are evil” is doing is keeping non-evil businesses from starting.

Assuming because someone makes a living online that they’re frauds or scammers is ridiculous. Of course there are some, but there are also some amazing folks who do stellar work and provide real value for a price. Selling isn’t spamming. We’re not evil simply because we’re trying to make a living online if we take into consideration our customers and audiences. Most huge companies never do this. Most huge companies don’t have the human touch smaller businesses do, and yet we still seem to be getting punished.

All that said, this issue in no way diminishes how I feel about the folks who don’t act like this (fact: they are awesome), or the fact that I’m both pleased and proud of how I make my living. I get that the internet can be a bad place full of bad people doing bad things. I just think that if we do something of our own volition, like signup for a mailing list or buy something, maybe our first step shouldn’t be the nuclear option...

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Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis, author + designer

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