Letter to Nitin Nohria, Dean of the Harvard Business School

I wrote Dean Nohria in response to this story

Ben Edelman is an associate professor at Harvard Business School, where he teaches in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit.

Ran Duan manages The Baldwin Bar, located inside the Woburn location of Sichuan Garden, a Chinese restaurant founded by his parents.

Last week, Edelman ordered what he thought was $53.35 worth of Chinese food from Sichuan Garden’s Brookline Village location.

Edelman soon came to the horrifying realization that he had been overcharged. By a total of $4.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a Harvard Business School professor thinks a family-run Chinese restaurant screwed him out of $4, you’re about to find out.

(Hint: It involves invocation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Statute and multiple threats of legal action.)

Here was the letter I sent, which was significantly more mature in tone for having waited 24 hours before writing it

My wife and I are both HBS '89 grads.  We own and actively manage a small to medium size service business.  I was encouraged at our last reunion to hear a lot of the effort HBS seems to be placing on small business and entrepreneurship.

However, I was horrified to see an HBS professor (prof Edelman) in the news harassing a small business over a small mistake on its web site.  I don't typically get worked up about Harvard grads acting out, but in this particular case his actions are absolutely at the core of what is making the operation of a small business increasingly impossible in this country.

Small businesses face huge and growing compliance risks from almost every direction -- labor law, safety rules, environmental rules, consumer protection laws, bounty programs like California prop 65, etc.  What all these have in common is that they impose huge penalties for tiny mistakes, mistakes that can be avoided only by the application of enormous numbers of labor hours in compliance activities.   These compliance costs are relatively easy for large companies to bear, but back-breaking for small companies.

So it is infuriating to see an HBS professor attempting to impose yet another large cost on a small business for a tiny mistake, particularly when the proprietor's response was handled so well.  Seriously, as an aside, I took service management from Ben Shapiro back in the day and I could easily see the restaurateur involved being featured positively in a case study.  He does all the same things I learned at HBS --  reading every customer comment personally, responding personally to complaints, bending over backwards to offer more than needed in order to save the relationship with the customer.

As for the restaurateur's web site mistake -- even in a larger, multi-site company, I as owner do all my own web work.  Just as I do a million other things to keep things running.  And it is hard, in fact virtually impossible, to keep all of our web sites up to date.  Which is why Professor Edelman's response just demonstrates to me that for all HBS talks about entrepreneurship, the faculty at HBS is still more attuned to large corporations and how they operate with their enormous staff resources rather than to small businesses.

Large corporations are crushing smaller ones in industry after industry because of the economy of scale they have in managing such compliance issues.  If the HBS faculty were truly committed to entrepreneurship, it should be thinking about how technology and process can be harnessed by smaller businesses to reduce the relative costs of these activities. How, for example, can I keep up with 150+ locations that each need a web presence when my sales per site are so much less than that of a larger corporation?  This is not impossible -- I have learned some tools and techniques over time -- and we should be teaching and expanding these, rather than spending time raising the cost of compliance for small business.


  1. Onlooker from Troy:

    Sounds like a typical petty out-of-touch academic who loves govt and the power it wields to crush those he doesn't care for. Pathetic, and aggravating.

  2. Mike:

    I think you meant "harnessed" in the last paragraph. Though, I'm sure "harassed" was certainly at the front of your mind!


  3. J_W_W:

    I had a really snarky post ready with a suggestion about how Chinese restaurants should treat orders from Professor Edelman. I am replacing it with this post because judging by how much of an insanely litigious bastard (with all due respect) this guy is, I have to restrain myself from making any direct suggestions.

  4. Richard Harrington:

    Have you seen boston.com's retraction?


    Apparently they couldn't verify the story, here's a summary: http://www.emergent.info/ben-edelman-racist-email

  5. mogden:

    The racist email claim was retracted, not the original series of emails for which Ben Edelman later apologized.

  6. kidmugsy:

    It might have been more constructive, Coyote, if you'd just suggested that they sack the fellow.

  7. Bart Hall:

    In my experience (including over a decade running a retail ornamental greenhouse in which we grow all the plants ourselves) the worst offenders for the type of entitlement mentality manifested by that Edelman schmuck are almost always the, shall we say, "newly arrived", and I don't mean immigrants. It is extraordinarily rare to encounter such boorish behavior in those emotionally and mentally comfortable in their situation because they've been taught from childhood how to behave in a manner consistent with their societal position.

    At Middlebury College nearly half a century ago I roomed next to Bill Post, as in Post cereals. If you weren't a friend you had not the slightest idea about his background or that he was already worth millions. Honest, genuine, humble, fair, He had been well trained from childhood. That an HBS prof bringing down something in the comfortable six figures would hassle a minority small business operator over 4 bucks is appalling. Such arrogance is far worse than what my grandmother acerbically called "noisy money" and the man was clearly not well-trained. Self-important putz is rather more like it.

    As a football coach once put it ... "when you score a touchdown, act like you've been there before."

  8. Mercury:

    How about this email? http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2014/12/10/ben-edelman-sorry/KHSxhY6GiT4EgYd4GefEGL/story.html

    Or this apparently even more sordid history:

    I work in close proximity to a lot of jerks and I see this kind of thing all the time. Even if the Edelman story is bogus episodes just like it happen 100 times a day. What "scary smart" people like Edelman can't fathom is that it's not a good idea to antagonize the people who prepare the food that you put into your mouth. Ever work in the restaurant business? - lots of volatile personalities and piratical behavior in that world. I assure you that Professor Edelman has swallowed more "special sauce" than Kim Kardashian.

  9. Dimitri Mariutto:

    At least, he owned up to it and apologized so there is some hope. Most people never even do this.


  10. J_W_W:

    That was a good apology. Its refreshing to see something that isn't of the "I'm sorry I offended" style.

    I can understand where someone might, in the heat of the moment, over-react to being wronged. At least he had the wherewithal to see his mistake.

  11. chembot:

    One depressing thing I note reading the original article is the vile display of spitefulness that a number of commenters had for the restaurant over a pitifully small disputed amount and how this Ran fellow basically deserves to be shut down for systematically cheating customers. Seriously... does every infraction require the death penalty? Does it not occur at all to these people that the menus inside the restaurant likely had the correct prices on them or else the proprietor would have had significantly more complaints? Or how inappropriate it is for a customer to not simply ask for redress of actual damages during the initial complaint, but to attempt extortion of punitive damages prior to a court judgement and threaten legal action over a dispute that is better numbered in hours rather than weeks? (want to bet this guy would attempt to recover "legal fees" for his own time during that case in small claims court?)

    I would say unbelievable, but sadly, it is all too believable. On one hand, it is easy to simply say that this is another case of "ONOZ! The internet is being mean", but it is amazing just how pseudo-anonymity really brings to the surface a whole lot of entitled visciousness that otherwise lurks just below the thin veneer of outward social graces. It is good we are not a telepathic species...

  12. Rick Caird:

    I suspect that, at this point, Ben Edelman (and Harvard) are really sorry he ever brought this up. The only winner here is the restaurant owner.

  13. obloodyhell:

    Being much less mature, I sent Prof Edelman (http://www.benedelman.org/mail/) the following invite:

    Name: Nunya Bidness
    Subject: Invite for presentation

    Our organization would like to invite you to give a talk, essentially to offer explanations of how you got to be the biggest freaking dick in a university that specializes in creating giant freaking dicks.

    We'd also appreciate if you could please offer a picture taking session to our attendees, who would probably like a souvenir of them standing next to the world's largest dick.

    Please let us know your fees for making presentations on how to be a giant dick.


    - Nunya Bidness
    Foundation for the Reduction of Cranio-Rectal Insertion Syndrome
    Hoo Hyuu, AK

    P.S., get a freaking life and leave the poor Chinese restaurateur alone, you giant stupid dick.

    P.P.S., Suggest you investigate "Streisand Effect" before you go any further. You've already managed to get into the on ramp for the fast lane.

  14. obloodyhell:

    Bart, the attitude you speak of is the modern version of "noblesse oblige". Just because you have the power to squash those around you like a bug doesn't mean you need to act like it.

  15. obloodyhell:

    They call this the "Tyler Durden" effect...

  16. johncunningham:

    I love the scene from Big Bang Theory where Sheldon tells Penny that her idiotic little job will soon vanish, since robots are being developed to do server work. Penny replies, "So they have developed a robot that spits in food?"