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I had the pleasure earlier this week of talking to early-stage entrepreneurs and assorted others about the importance of building trust from the get-go.

Providing a genuinely useful and usable experience with great customer service is the starting point for many start-ups, but one that is nowadays expected as the price of admission.

Customers, the general public and others are able to act immediately on bad experiences and are increasingly intolerant of perceived poor behaviour by companies.

The travails of companies like Uber and Theranos show that having good governance, being open and transparent – including preparing properly for when things go wrong – and having strong values and a clear purpose are essential if a start-up is to build trust over the long-term.

Here are my slides:

 

One of the pleasures of working in a start-up office space is being surrounded by entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, which makes for an interesting, exciting and positive environment.

In the rush to get up-and-running, generating revenue and turning a profit, most start-ups focus on product and marketing. This is eminently sensible: both are building blocks of a strong and healthy reputation.

But long-term reputation and communications are often overlooked in the mix. Uber’s current travails are an obvious example of this, with its perceived arrogance and willingness to play dirty resulting in severe friction with local authorities and access issues in multiple markets.

On which, here is an article I penned recently for Jumpstart HK magazine on how start-ups can build trust from the get-go.

See also my presentation on the same topic.

 

 

The contract is fairly standard, my agent confirmed. However, she stuttered, the final clause is most unusual, one she had never seen before. If you find it a problem I am happy to go back to the landlord, she added.

My curiosity piqued, I scanned the document. It seemed a perfectly normal rental contract, with the exception of the following Rider:

It is a condition of the tenancy that inside the premises (address removed), including the immediate external areas surrounding the premises, there shall not be any idol or graven image or any activity relating to the worshiping of idol(s), such as the burning of incense or the setting up of any kind of altar or shrine. If this stipulation is contravened, the landlord reserves the right to terminate the tenancy contract with immediate effect and return the Security Deposit within 14 days as stipulated within Clause 7 of this same agreement.

Being agnostic, I accepted the document in its entirety and thought little more of it.

– – –

Regrettably, small things quickly started going wrong, culminating in the washing machine grinding to a halt, at which point I called my landlord. He quickly apologised, volunteered to address the issues and later appeared, a polite, casually dressed mid-30-year-old local Hong Kong financial trader who clearly knew his way round washing machines better than I. After a short while the worst of the problems were resolved.

I thanked him and as we made for the door he pressed something into my hand. It turned out to be a small, pink-brown pamphlet extolling an evangelical Christian sect with a UK telephone number and an address in east London. He revealed he was about to spend a month devoted to its gospel in Ilford’s leafy suburbs.

And with that he made off into the gloom of the passageway.

– – –

Given his religiosity, why did my landlord add the Rider to the contract? There appear a number of possible explanations:

First, that there is but one God, and that was my landlord’s God.

Second, that he figured his tenants, presumably free from being beholden to other Gods, were ripe for persuasion.

Third, that he was trying to discourage mainland Chinese, Indians and other perceived idolaters from renting his apartment.

All three explanations are possible, but the final one seems most likely.

– – –

Some other takeaways spring to mind:

For one, a lawyer friend reckons my landlord had almost certainly broken Hong Kong’s anti-discrimination laws.

Second, being seen to say one thing while doing another has always been, and remains, a sure-fire way to raise hackles.

And third, given the ease with which information and experiences can today be shared, one’s reputation — personal and professional — is a slippery, amorphous entity that has to be carefully managed at all times. Discrimination and inconsistency make it a juicy target.

– – –

I will not reveal the landlord’s name. Such an act seems inappropriate and would hardly be becoming.

Yet I never trusted him from that moment and moved out at the earliest opportunity.

 

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