I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was at work with my startup team when the office manager walked up to my desk and handed me a letter. “You’d better have a look at this,” she said with a worried look.
I skimmed the letter quickly. It was from one of the country’s top legal firms. They were threatening to sue both my startup, and me personally.
In Over My Depth
My business was a consumer reviews website – so I guess I always knew that I was somewhat exposed to legal action.
My cofounder and I had sought out some minimal legal advice when we started – which basically amounted to “take reasonable steps to ensure there are no false reviews”. Ok, fine.
Of course we had checks in place to give us a good amount of confidence in our reviews. But now things had just gotten real. We could lose everything. Our business, our reputation, my family house… everything. Scenes of dramatised legal shows flashed before my eyes.
I wasn’t ready for this.
Jumping To Conclusions And Other Mistakes I’ve Made
I assured my office manager it would be fine and took some time to read the letter again, carefully. I looked into the business that was claiming there were false, negative reviews on our site. There were certainly several scathing reviews. I spent some time investigating to look for similarities, patterns or any evidence that they might not be real. I couldn’t find any. The reviews looked genuine. It seemed like this business was providing very poor service, misleading their clients, and now they didn’t like the public feedback that they were receiving.
Suddenly I remembered that this was exactly why I started my business. To let people know about dodgy businesses and help them find businesses that were in the habit of keeping customers happy. I believed in the transparency that this business was arguing vehemently against. I believed that businesses that went out of their way to provide good customer service should be rewarded. And I believed that businesses providing bad service, should be exposed.
I reconnected with my vision for the business.
I was still scared, but I felt certain we were was in the right. Dropping everything else, I searched for and found the section of the legal act that defined defamation and read over it a few times. Still feeling out of my depth, I picked up the phone and called the lawyer whose name was on the letter.
My heart was pounding at a thousand beats a minute, but I pulled it together and stayed calm. I asked the lawyer exactly what their claims were in relation to the act. I empathised with their client – after all, no-one likes receiving bad reviews. But I also explained our systems for weeding out any fraudulent reviews and our commitment to publishing truthful reviews.
The lawyer understood. He heard my passion and dedication to having the truth be told. He almost seemed to start agreeing with me. I offered some resources to help their client respond to their reviews in the best way possible and take their reviews onboard as a way to improve their service. Somehow, the threat of a lawsuit had turned into a way to help a small business.
I did not lose my house and my startup lived to fight another day.
4 Lessons Learnt Once The Panic Passed
1) Threatening legal letters might not be as bad as they seem
It’s lawyers jobs to see if they can scare you into backing down. Take the time to work out if you’ve actually done anything wrong before panicking.
2) A Strong Vision Matters
Having a clear and strong vision for your business can provide huge clarity in times of stress. In this example it helped me connect back into why I’d made the decisions I had (eg allow negative reviews), and also convince others of the merits of this strategy. Even when under threat, having a strong vision helped me feel sure I was still doing the right thing.
3) The Things You Worry About Probably Aren’t As Bad As You Think
That thing you’re worried about, probably won’t pan out to be as bad as you think. In this situation, within 20 minutes, I went from complete panic and being sure my business was over, my reputation ruined and my family would be homeless by the end of the month, to finding a new ally and a renewed sense of confidence in my mission.
Of course there will always be tough times in business, but in my experience, they won’t be the ones you expect.
4) You Can Handle More Than You Think
Sure you’re out of your depth and haven’t a clue what you’re doing. But remember, most people are in the same boat. Don’t overcomplicate things. Be clear on what you’re hoping to achieve. And then…. dive in and have the hard conversation.
It usually works itself out somehow.
The nature of this business meant that over the years, we received many more threatening legal letters and phone calls. But each time they got easier to handle and we were never actually sued 🙂