I had a lunch meeting to make. It was a 6-mile drive down US 1, and having made the trip many times before, I knew that it normally took 20 minutes to get there. Based on past experience I allowed another 5 minutes to get to the car and out of the parking lot. As I turned on 3rd avenue to go South, I saw cars piled up before the draw bridge, but it was not up. A construction worker holding a stop sign halted traffic. A huge crane from which a massive slab of concrete hung was hoisting it up the building under construction. My fellow commuters and I were there a good five minutes. As I texted my contact to tell him I’d be late, and as the worker lowered the sign allowing the first few cars to continue moving, the gates on the drawbridge came down as the bridge went up. I was mad at myself, not sure why. I had been disrupted. It was not the fault of the worker, nor of the captain of the boat coming down the river, nor of the supervisor who asked to get the slab hoisted up 20 floors at noon. It was my fault for being over confident with my time.

Some time ago, after acting as a judge in a pitch competition, at the end of the evening, the organizer gifted me the pen that was given to all the judges to fill the scoring sheets. It is a non-disposable gel pen like the ones people would pay top dollar for 20 years ago but which have become so comparably inexpensive now that people throw them out after they run out of ink. I’ve always been a fan of good writing instruments, and very good at not losing them, so after it ran out of ink I decided as always to get the refills. The pace of life has become so fast and time taxing that for over 3 weeks, I had not been able to find the time to stop by an office supply store and get refills. I had resorted to using all kinds of ball point pens that I collect at trade shows and remain next to each other in a corner of my desk. But I longed for the feeling of the nice gel pen over paper, so I ordered a box of 12 refills online at the world’s largest online store. I hadn’t done it before because I had been optimistic for way too long that I would find the time that night (for over 20 nights in a row) to drop by the brick and mortar store and get writing right away that same night. Some 5 days later, as I opened the package in excitement, I had to ask one of my daughters: “What is this?” “They are eyelash extensions, papi.” I had never seen anything like that. They looked like tiny spiders all lined up in a perfect grid and truly reminded me of the amazing permanent displays at Cornell’s Albert R. Mann Library which houses one of the world’s largest entomology collections. I checked the package again. Yes, it was my order of refills. But somehow, the world’s largest online store had made a mistake of sending me the wrong item. Was it an honest mistake? Was it the doing of a disgruntled or tired warehouse worker like those you read about in the paper these days who could not care less, and to fulfill his numbers grabbed the first item he came across and fulfilled my order with it? I followed the process on the app to indicate the mistake in the order and send for a replacement and return. It did not work, as the resulting message on the screen explained: “this item is not eligible for return”. I was mad, not sure at who. I had been disrupted. As far as I could tell, it was not my fault. In fact, I’m sure about that, as a recorded electronic order trail would validate.

The app did allow me to rate my purchase. I let them have it, and awarded the experience one star, complaining that I could not return the item, did not get my ink, and that others ordering refills might want to beware of potentially high inventories of eyelash extensions for which the world’s largest online store had found a way to dispose of without giving recourse to the customers. I’m usually not that nasty, as people that know me can attest. The next day I received a return email explaining that my review had not been posted because it was offensive and violated policy. Go figure. I was disrupted again. It was my fault for getting cocky.

One of the solutions or ways to lessen the economic agency problem that we discuss during the Startup NOW accelerator’s boot-camp is the availability of customer ratings. Customer ratings make information less asymmetrical to both parties to an exchange, and level the playing field in a free market. I will never know exactly what happened in Amazon’s fulfillment warehouse when my order’s turn came up. The only information I have is that the item “was not as described” and that is good enough reason, without further speculation as to the reasons behind it, to give my experience a one-star rating. I think that would have flown if I had not let the disruption take the best of me. My intent to propagate disinformation went against the information asymmetry reduction purpose of the rating system, and they caught on to that. Free market 1, me 0. I think that’s a good result.

Another good thing about free markets and free societies is that I can now go ahead and gift the little box of seeming spiders to a friend who may be able to use it, perhaps striking an enjoyable conversation. After that I’ll stop by the office supply store and get a wider smile in return from the cashier, than the one that will be beaming on my face – as I anticipate the feeling of my gel pen over paper, and I hand over my debit card to pay for my box of refills.

Our View from the Top – February 12, 2019