A sign in the window of a San Francisco home in support of Proposition F, which would have restricted Airbnb-like short-term rentals in the city. The measure was voted down. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images A sign in the window of a San Francisco home in support of Proposition F, which would have restricted Airbnb-like short-term rentals in the city. The measure was voted down. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

In the Superman comic books, the Man of Steel’s archrival, Lex Luthor, is a bald billionaire who runs multinational conglomerate LexCorp (when he’s not foraging for Kryptonite). But in the upcoming Superman film, the villain looks a lot more like Mark Zuckerberg—and not just because he’s played by Jesse Eisenberg, who portrayed the Facebook founder in The Social Network. As screenwriter David Goyer recently explained on the Nerdist podcast: “I was always thought [Luthor] was a combination of Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.”

The real-life business people of today who inspire that same Luthor-esque mix of admiration and suspicion aren’t industrialists, but digital tycoons like Zuckerberg and Tesla founder Musk. They might not be secretly building death rays, but tech startups have proven remarkably adept at garnering huge public support—and then squandering it.

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Usually beloved short-term rental site Airbnb recently found itself spurned by the public for an ill-advised advertising campaign in San Francisco. The city has been considering measures that would regulate and restrict how often a property can be offered for rent through Airbnb and similar services. In response, the company posted a series of billboards bearing messages like: “Dear Board of Education: Please use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep art in schools. Love, Airbnb.” Residents were unimpressed, with one local website describing the ads as “the equivalent of being rude to a public worker and then shouting, ‘I pay your salary!’” As anger grew over the ads’ passive-aggressive messages, Airbnb apologized, admitting it chose “the wrong tone.”

The incident recalls ride-sharing service Uber’s defiant attitude toward municipalities that attempt to regulate it. It also reeks of the same “we-know-better-than-you” condescension from the early days of Facebook, when the site often changed privacy policies without warning or consultation.

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It would be nice to moralize about how these companies need to value their customers’ trust, lest they risk losing the unspoken commodity that underpins their businesses. But here’s the thing: There’s no evidence that any of these firms actually suffer for their arrogance. Uber is currently seeking an additional US$1 billion in funding, in a round that would value the company at close to US$70 billion, up from US$18.2 billion in June 2014. Not only has Uber spited municipal, state and national regulators, but it’s also endured everything from complaints of inadequate wages to criminal convictions against its drivers.

It seems unlikely Airbnb’s recent faux pas will have even a momentary effect on its business. People might disapprove of these behemoths of the sharing economy as corporate entities—but that’s not what consumers interact with. Instead, it’s that wonderful driver who was nice to your mother or the landlord who left a vase of roses. It’s a bit like politics: Voters are 20% more likely to support a candidate if they come to the door, according to a George Mason University study.

In the case of these tech upstarts, you don’t even need to have a good experience—just as long as a friend does. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study found 69% of consumers would only try a company if it was recommended by someone they trust—a higher priority than government regulation. Ultimately, consumers value the face-to-face interaction these companies offer. They seldom care what’s happening back at corporate headquarters.

James Cowan is the editor-in-chief of Canadian Business. This article is from the December 2015 issue of Canadian BusinessSubscribe now!

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What do you think of Uber and Airbnb? Do the frontline customer experiences outweigh the corporate problems? Let us know by commenting below.

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