Small Business Safari: Vigilante Justice in the Digital Age.

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Last month, Cecil the lion was hunted down and killed in Zimbabwe by a dentist from Minnesota. Angry nature lovers then hunted down the dentist's business and attempted to kill it with a combination of protests and vicious reviews.

The media coverage making it seem like Dr. Walter Palmer's act of violence was extreme, but the hatred demonstrated by the public towards his place of business was exciting but expected. (Example 1) (Example 2)

Based on figures estimated by the ADA (link), this two-dentist office lost about $64,644 over the approximately 17 days that it was closed. (It has since reopened.) That's just shy of a full year's income for an full time dental hygienist.

Why do we value small businesses?

Small businesses are valued because they are theoretically responsive to the influence of the customers - of course, that responsiveness is directly related to their distinct vulnerability to changes in public opinion. You don't expect Comcast to change because you are displeased with their work. You do expect Uncle Joe's House of Ribs to step up the service if your potatoes arrive at the table cold.

Small businesses are trusted because we believe small business owners are average people with similar values to our own, not distant wealthy CEOs focused exclusively on Wall Street's needs. (Source: Public Affairs Council Pulse Survey) This is why it's such a personal betrayal when a small business owner presents an opinion that differs from our own, such as the bakeries who would not prepare cakes for gay weddings.

I would argue that our love for small businesses taps into a very basic human instinct. If our morals or wants are threatened by a small business - that is to say, if we were to get into a "fight or flight" situation - we would easily be able to taken them on and come out ahead. Vulnerability is the key factor.

Patronage or Patronizing?

We hold similar expectations for small businesses and toddlers. We expect them to stumble occasionally. We expect that they will learn from their mistakes if we scold them. But if they decide not to listen, the relationship can change abruptly from parent-child to predator-prey.

Companies like River Bluff Dental and previous designated whipping boy Amy's Baking Co have been subject to frenzied mob mentality attacks in response to singular actions of their owners. The offending actions may or may not be related to their ability to perform on the job. The attackers may or may not be located within a reasonable distance of the business to ever visit in person. While those actions may have been bad and we don't endorse any of these companies simply by including them here, the resulting backlash on consumer review sites was way out of proportion. It skipped over due course of law and went straight to the sentencing.

"...shoot him, skin his carcass and mount his stuffed head on the wall at Yelp HQ so the scrubbers have something to look at while they hit the delete key all day..." -- Yelp Review of River Bluff Dental

This sort of global digital torch and pitchfork assembly is not a completely new trend, either. Local property manager Horizon Realty was the subject of a similar protest based on media coverage of a court case in 2009 - 28 reviews on Yelp from this era by non-resident kibitzers have been totally deleted as Terms of Service violations.

Ghosts of prior mob action haunt the profiles of prior victims.
Ghosts of prior mob action haunt the profiles of prior victims. Note the close dates and diverse locations. (Screenshot via

Businesses have always been at the mercy of their customers but it was tougher to spread the word before the advent of online reviews. Sites like Yelp have weaponized the consumer experience, turning what used to be basic conversation into a big game hunt for blood. They have made it acceptable for patrons to take extreme, public offense in response to perceived lapses in customer service. Review authors and readers alike now shop with heightened critical attitudes, entering previously down-voted businesses with the expectation of failure. They want their friends hitting that 'Cool' or 'Funny' button on their story afterwards. What they won't do is attempt to resolve issues with the actual owners and staff.

"So even when I had some serious concerns, I just let it pass. I'm not really a confrontational person. Just come home and Yelp about it!" - Yelp Review of Amy's Baking Co.

Are Small Businesses defined solely by their owners?

Last I knew, dentistry and hunting were not closely related skill sets. There is a difference between taking revenge against a person and taking it against their business. Yes, the damage to Dr. Palmer's business may keep him from raising funds for future big game hunts. Yes, all told he probably should be fined and possibly jailed for the hunt. But he had 11 employees, 10 of whom were in clerical or assistant roles. What they do with their estimated $64k/yr salaries is unknown, but I highly doubt that it has anything to do with lions. They had to put up with a whole lot of anger, press and vitriol for no fault of their own.

The Small Business Association defines a small business as having less than $7.5 million in annual receipts or fewer than 500 employees, depending on the type of business. (Source: Over half of the US population works for small businesses. (Source: It's easy to think about a small business as entirely the reflection of its owners, and hold the entire company at fault when those owners make social missteps. However, the reality of the situation is that those who benefit from small business employment are frequently not the owners. In fact, many owners will forego paying themselves in early stages of startup in favor of making sure their employees can eat. (Source: Yahoo Small Business Advisor)

Those who value small business would do well to view those businesses - not just your favorites, but all small businesses - as something other than children or prey. Yes, they may be child-like in their mishaps but they are not your children to shape and mold. Yes, they are vulnerable to public opinion but that does not mean you should be perpetually seeking something to complain about in an online review. An entire company's staff should not be punished for the mistakes or crimes of a single employee. That kind of attitude is not "constructively critical." It's power-tripping, plain and simple, and no better than the big game hunting that caused this whole debacle in the first place.

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Kay Cleaves

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