Don’t Poke the Bear


Have you ever been consumed by the desire for revenge?

You’re not alone.

Revenge has been motivating humans to act since biblical times. 

Stuart Butterfield, Barack Obama, and Ja Rule underestimated the power of this phenomenon. In each case, their opponents gained maniacal focus and a determination to get even. They unknowingly gave their biggest rivals a competitive edge. 

In late 2016, Stuart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, made a critical mistake. Microsoft had just announced their competing service to Slack, called “Teams,” and Stuart wanted to capitalize on it and generate buzz. He took out a full-page ad in the New York Times.

The ad had a condescending tone and began by congratulating Microsoft. “Wow. Big News! We’re genuinely excited to have some competition.” 

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Source: https://www.theverge.com/2016/11/2/13497766/slack-microsoft-teams-new-york-times-ad

What happened next can be best described by the look on Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella’s face.

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Source: https://news.microsoft.com/exec/satya-nadella/

Fast forward to today, and Slack’s stock price is down by more than 20% since it IPO’d in June 2019. Microsoft surged 60% during the same period and Teams raced past Slack in Daily Active Users.

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Source: https://www.statista.com/chart/20028/daily-active-users-of-slack-and-microsoft-teams/

In April 2020, Stuart Butterfield changed his tune. Microsoft was no longer a competitor.

Strange. He slapped Microsoft with an anti-trust case three months later, claiming in the NY Times that Microsoft was “using its market power to try to crush the upstart rival.”

Is calling out Microsoft the only reason Slack stock is down? No. But, the infamous ad shaped public perception by painting the companies as fierce competitors. If anything, Teams is more of a competitor to Zoom, at least according to a post on Microsoft’s blog. But, notice how few people ever talk about Teams vs. Zoom?

In a recent interview, Stuart Butterfield said the ad generated good publicity for Slack, but I’m not convinced. They were already the fastest-growing enterprise software company and reached $100 million in ARR in less than three years.

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I can’t imagine how giddy Slack employees were when they first saw the ad in the Times.

What could go wrong?

You could ask the same question about the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2011. Seth Meyers and Barack Obama took turns shredding Donald Trump in front of an audience. And why wouldn’t they? After all, he was one of the loudest voices behind the birther movement that was dogging Obama.

Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican – which is surprising since I just assumed that he was running as a joke. – Seth Meyers

To Seth’s credit, Trump was an easy target. He was the guy bragging about owning the “biggest” and “best” casinos before they went bankrupt. And, now he was contemplating a run for office?

Trump’s public shaming was a catalyst in his relentless pursuit of the presidency. New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, recalls Trump’s reaction: 

“On that night, Trump’s own sense of public humiliation became so overwhelming that he decided, perhaps at first unconsciously, that he would, somehow, get his own back — perhaps even pursue the Presidency after all, no matter how nihilistically or absurdly, and redeem himself.”

Just as addicts display addictive tendencies in multiple areas, egomaniacs are maniacal about more than just their egos. They may dedicate their lives to ruining yours if you belittle them.

Clearly, we haven’t learned a thing. In 2016, as we neared the Presidential Election, a trump statue with a micropenis appeared in Union Square. 

Revenge is a shot of adrenaline injecting new life into your adversaries.

Why arm your competitors with such a weapon? 

Isn’t life hard enough as is?

Not according to Ja Rule. 

Before 50 Cent and Kanye became hip-hop GOATS, the clubs were bumpin’ anthems by Ja Rule. You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing his bars on J. Lo’s “I’m Real” remix — Ja Rule was always on time when it came to topping the billboards. He sold over 15 million records and attained triple platinum status. His label Murder Inc. was becoming such a thing, it was minting other stars like Ashanti.

Then he started beefing with Eminem — arguably the greatest battle rapper ever.

On the diss track “Loose Change,” Ja Rule badmouthed Eminem’s daughter, Hailie Mathers.

Rookie mistake.  

Marshall Mathers responded with a swift onslaught — cementing Ja Rule’s demise from chart-topper to failed festival founder.

Did you see the sandwiches they were serving at Fyre Festival?

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Remember this sandwich next time you want to diss a competitor. Your story might have a sadder ending.

The desire to get revenge can be a mighty motivator. It coalesces people into action. 

It placed Slack in the cross-hairs of a tech behemoth. 

It gave Donald Trump the presidency — not only did he yearn to get even, but the revenge of working-class whites drove his victory. 

And, it turned Ja Rule into a sad sandwich peddler.

So think twice before calling out your opponents in public. Doing so will fan the flames of your ego, but it will also ignite an inferno inside your opponents. If you’re not careful, it will engulf your empire.