I wrote Dean Nohria in response to this story
Last week, Edelman ordered what he thought was $53.35 worth of Chinese food from Sichuan Garden’s Brookline Village location.
Edelman soon came to the horrifying realization that he had been overcharged. By a total of $4.
If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a Harvard Business School professor thinks a family-run Chinese restaurant screwed him out of $4, you’re about to find out.
(Hint: It involves invocation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Statute and multiple threats of legal action.)
Here was the letter I sent, which was significantly more mature in tone for having waited 24 hours before writing it
My wife and I are both HBS '89 grads. We own and actively manage a small to medium size service business. I was encouraged at our last reunion to hear a lot of the effort HBS seems to be placing on small business and entrepreneurship.
However, I was horrified to see an HBS professor (prof Edelman) in the news harassing a small business over a small mistake on its web site. I don't typically get worked up about Harvard grads acting out, but in this particular case his actions are absolutely at the core of what is making the operation of a small business increasingly impossible in this country.
Small businesses face huge and growing compliance risks from almost every direction -- labor law, safety rules, environmental rules, consumer protection laws, bounty programs like California prop 65, etc. What all these have in common is that they impose huge penalties for tiny mistakes, mistakes that can be avoided only by the application of enormous numbers of labor hours in compliance activities. These compliance costs are relatively easy for large companies to bear, but back-breaking for small companies.
So it is infuriating to see an HBS professor attempting to impose yet another large cost on a small business for a tiny mistake, particularly when the proprietor's response was handled so well. Seriously, as an aside, I took service management from Ben Shapiro back in the day and I could easily see the restaurateur involved being featured positively in a case study. He does all the same things I learned at HBS -- reading every customer comment personally, responding personally to complaints, bending over backwards to offer more than needed in order to save the relationship with the customer.
As for the restaurateur's web site mistake -- even in a larger, multi-site company, I as owner do all my own web work. Just as I do a million other things to keep things running. And it is hard, in fact virtually impossible, to keep all of our web sites up to date. Which is why Professor Edelman's response just demonstrates to me that for all HBS talks about entrepreneurship, the faculty at HBS is still more attuned to large corporations and how they operate with their enormous staff resources rather than to small businesses.
Large corporations are crushing smaller ones in industry after industry because of the economy of scale they have in managing such compliance issues. If the HBS faculty were truly committed to entrepreneurship, it should be thinking about how technology and process can be harnessed by smaller businesses to reduce the relative costs of these activities. How, for example, can I keep up with 150+ locations that each need a web presence when my sales per site are so much less than that of a larger corporation? This is not impossible -- I have learned some tools and techniques over time -- and we should be teaching and expanding these, rather than spending time raising the cost of compliance for small business.