Start-ups often frame themselves as plucky upstarts intent on toppling bigger, entrenched rivals. This David-vs.-Goliath narrative has been used by tech firms to vilify corporate giants such as telecoms, banks, razor manufacturers and taxi companies.
But on Wednesday, a start-up called Bodega found out what happens when a tech firm appears to go after the little guy — in this case, the humble corner store.
Bodega’s business are 5-foot-wide pantry boxes loaded with household essentials that the company intends to install across the country. The cupboard automatically charges your credit card for things you remove from it.
It’s basically a fancy vending machine or hotel minibar, packed with items such as La Croix, coconut water, protein bars and instant noodles, and unlocked with a smartphone app.
But with a name nodding to New York City’s ubiquitous corner stores and a logo evoking the popular cats that inhabit them, the company quickly became the subject of social media scrutiny after a Fast Company article suggested the concept, if successful, would put traditional mom-and-pop corner stores out of business.
“Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning. And we apologize to anyone we’ve offended,” McDonald wrote.
“Corner stores have been fixtures of their neighborhoods for generations. They stock thousands of items, far more than we could ever fit on a few shelves,” the post reads. “They’re run by people who in addition to selling everything from toilet paper to milk also offer an integral human connection to their patrons that our automated storefronts never will.”
The company, founded by two former Google employees, also responded to criticism that it was appropriating the name of a class of businesses often owned by immigrants.
“When we first came up with the idea to call the company Bodega we recognized that there was a risk of it being interpreted as misappropriation,” McDonald wrote. “We did some homework — speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause. But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people. Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning.”
Short of promising a name change, McDonald wrote that the company will “commit to reviewing the feedback and understanding the reactions from today.”
McDonald and co-founder Ashwath Rajan received angel investments from executives at Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and Google, and secured funding from a number of notable venture capital firms.
But on Twitter, at least one prominent tech investor criticized Bodega for its botched rollout. Spark Capital partner Nabeel Hyatt summed up Bodega’s issue as one of branding.
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