Shopify is a popular e-commerce platform that hosts many online stores. At first blush, that sounds like an uncontroversial business -- but in the Age of Trump, no corner of the economy is safe from controversy. At some point, every business will be told to pick a side by the social media mob, and told that refusing to choose is a choice too.
Currently Shopify is taking heat from employees and users alike for allowing the alt-right website Breitbart News to continue selling merchandise via its service. Emotions are running high enough that many Shopify users are willing to undergo the hassle of switching e-commerce providers, possibly killing permalinks to product pages or losing sales while their stores are offline for maintenance.
Merchants who haven't taken the plunge yet are threatening to take their business elsewhere, many using the hashtag #DeleteShopify in an echo of the #DeleteUber campaign. A third-party Shopify developer released a plugin called Cancel Breitbart. He pondered in the description section, "Is this the first ever Shopify protest app?" The protests have been ongoing for weeks, but a recent attempt by Shopify's CEO to explain his thinking has sparked renewed furor.
On February 8, CEO Tobias Lütke defended keeping Breitbart on board in an essay called "In Support of Free Speech." Lütke identified himself as a liberal immigrant, whose employees are predominantly liberal as well, and called himself an "unlikely defender" of the controversial pro-Trump website. However, he wrote, "If we start blocking out voices, we would fall short of our goals as a company to make commerce better for everyone. Instead, we would have a biased and diminished platform."
Imagine all the energy to censor voices would be directed towards talk, engagement, and sharing with those who see things differently.-- Tobi Lütke (@tobi) February 11, 2017
Critics have pointed out that this message conflicts with Shopify's TOS, which prohibits overtly sexual products and content, among other restrictions. A Shopify spokesperson confirmed that these aspects of the TOS are dictated by the company's payment processors.
Increasingly, outrage with Donald Trump's presidency is bringing consumer-driven political risk to companies' doorsteps, especially those with high-profile founders. The activist focus on Breitbart shows that any tie with an entity associated with Trump can galvanize boycotts or passionate hashtag storms. Yet companies that attempt to distance themselves from the new president or court anti-Trump consumers by condemning his policies risk backlash, as Nordstrom found out when it stopped selling Ivanka Trump's merchandise. (The retailer said it was an apolitical decision based strictly on declining sales.)
In this environment, CEOs and other executives must tread carefully, balancing their desire to appease angry customers on both sides of the aisle, as well as juggling their personal ethics and their duty to investors.
Programming teacher Ashley Jane Lewis pulled out of a Shopify-sponsored panel for women in tech, telling Metro Ottawa, "I regret all my encounters with them." On the consumer side, the Sleeping Giants campaign, which pressures companies to stop advertising with Breitbart, has taken up the cause. They're joined by Star Trek alum and social media celebrity George Takei:
Time for Amazon to stop advertising with Breitbart, and for Shopify to stop selling its good on Breitbart. RT if you agree.-- George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) February 4, 2017
Meanwhile, Shopify stock is hovering near $60, nearly a 50 percent increase from its autumn price. The company's reported Q4 2016 earnings on February 15, stating in a press release that revenue grew 90 percent year-over-year, increasing from $205.2 million in 2015 to $389.3 million in 2016. Although the company is not profitable, its operating losses have declined as a percentage of revenue (albeit by only 1 percent).
Consumer movements like Sleeping Giants and the similar #GrabYourWallet initiative are operating on the assumption that a financial hit -- or at least the PR pressure -- will force companies to conform to the activists' political values. Shopify, like Facebook and Twitter before it, is showing that either its founders' values override business concerns, or that the impact this really has on the bottom line is limited.
The broad, intense attention on Shopify will likely blow over in a couple of days, even if those who rely on the platform for their livelihoods remain engaged. Nevertheless, this case demonstrates the uneasy truce that tech companies have with half of their users at any given time -- the half that's angry alternates by issue. Businesses don't want to be partisan, because it usually doesn't help their share prices, but users may force them to be.