Today, more than ever, we seem intent to create heroes and villains.   And the tech world seems to be the place where heroes become villains very quickly.

A reputational case study

The company that has received most press attention in the last month is Zoom.  This is perhaps not surprising.  Suddenly everyone is working from home and is desperate to fill their time by replicating those long meetings in the office that drive people mad.

But dive deeper into the Zoom story and you see a nuanced change from the start of the lockdown to now.  Phase one was based around how well the company was doing: its share price was sky high, sales were growing rapidly.  On the day of the UK lockdown its share price reached almost $160, more than double what it had been in December. 

Almost immediately the backlash began.  The mobile app was shown to have vulnerabilities.  Then there were fears over third-party apps being used with the app.  Banks, Governments, Google and NASA all refused to use the app.  Teachers and doctors were advised to avoid it.  The share price today is down more than 20 percent on its peak.  It is important to note that the product did not change in this time.  The security vulnerabilities were there the entire time.  It almost felt like, in the space of a month, the world fell in and then out of love with Zoom.

Cultural sensitivities

I have spent a lot of time thinking about Zoom this month because we have been doing some work with a teaching platform from China, which usually competes with Zoom.  Before Covid-19 was in Europe, it was in China and, when it hit, some of the Universities with the best reputations in the world used this platform to continue to teach students remotely.  It is a hugely well thought out piece of technology.  Data is not stored on servers and this helps protect teachers and children and deliver critical duty of care. 

It is, however, from China.  And right now, following the suspicions around Huawei and the US President talking of a ‘Chinese virus’, that will be enough to put some people off. Issues such as registering with a phone number rather than an email make a lot of sense when you hear from the developers that this is to ensure further privacy and protection against spam and malware.  But it does not feel as culturally sensitive in the UK, where people are fearful of handing over mobile numbers but will gladly share an email address anywhere.

It makes not a jot of difference if you have the best technical solution in the world if you do not seem sensitive to local cultures. This matters for tech firms because to fully exploit their opportunities they can quickly scale globally.  Cultural sensitivity matters.  We build trust based on it.  It is a serious consideration for tech entrepreneurs.