Interesting criticism: “Tea Trade is a clusterfuck”

Perhaps the most important consideration about the above statement is that I like criticism. Sometimes I even thrive on it, but really that kind of description is unnecessary.

This week Jason Walker published a blog post that was very critical about Tea Trade and focused on our Marketplace. Here is a screenshot of what he wrote (it has since been edited, but the new version really isn’t an improvement):

Screenshot source: Jason Walker, walkerteareview.com

Not the kind of public language one expects from someone who tries to position himself as a leader in the online tea community. Certainly not the kind of language I’ve come to see and expect in that same community. I’ve seen many strong opinions, but rarely expressed with such vulgarity.

Is he right?

Yes, he is. Though I really don’t need him to tell me that, much less in the kind of language that makes him look like a really poor ambassador for the tea community. I’m fully aware of the deficiencies of our marketplace, just like everyone else is. Everyone’s opinions matter to me because Tea Trade matters to me, though the respect I had for Mr. Walker before his post has greatly diminished as has my thinking that he shows leadership and wisdom for tea lovers. While I find his criticism relevant, I find his language and manner repugnant.

There are a number of things that are well overdue for an overhaul, and I’ll go through them shortly. There are also some other things that exist as part of early decisions we made about setting up the Marketplace. Before I do that, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. The Tea Trade Marketplace is a ground-breaking piece of innovation, not only in the online tea world, but also in various web development circles – specifically, WordPress. To date, Tea Trade is the oldest WordPress multisite e-commerce network online today. We launched using a different e-commerce software in January 2010. Later, in the summer of that year, we transitioned to a newly released WordPress multisite e-commerce package that enabled us to convert ordinary blogs into full fledged stores. The added benefit was that we could display global products from across the network on the central Tea Trade main site. This display became the Tea Trade Marketplace.

We launched our new Marketplace using this new software only one month after it was released, complete with bugs and all. Since that time, we’ve maintained a close relationship with the developer of that software and have have contributed feedback and ideas for the improvement of it. Because of my experience with the software, I contribute regularly to help other users of it and have even been approached to develop other WordPress multisite networks in other commercial niches using the same program.

What is wrong with the Marketplace?

Here is a short list of some things I’ve identified as issues, click each heading to expand my explanation of it:

[toggle title=”The browsing experience is incongruent.“]The main display lists all the products from across the Marketplace and you can sort by tea types. When you click on a product, you are taken to the product page on the seller’s website, in a new browser tab. I configured that behavior intentionally because previously, it used the same browser tab and took you away from the Marketplace. The intent is that you will look at the seller’s product and begin to browse their site and shop from it, but I recognize that is what Marketplace shoppers don’t want to do, they want to browse a marketplace, not a store.

When you switch back to the Marketplace tab and select another product, it loads the new page in the same tab that was just previously opened. This forces you to loose your place in the store you were already looking at. [/toggle]

[toggle title=”The product names are truncated.”] The product names are cut off automatically after a certain number of characters. This was originally done to accommodate the grid layout I chose to use for the Marketplace. This is a simple styling issue and one that I can generally fix with about 10 lines of style code and about 30 minutes of time. I haven’t done it, I’m guilty.

There are two approaches I have looked at for this one is to simply remove the product names and display the images only, but this relies on high-quality images from the sellers, which is not always possible. The other is to overlay the product names on the image and using word wrap to display the full length of the name. The downside to this is that in my testing, when the longer product names obscure more than a third of the image, it just starts to look bad. [/toggle]

[toggle title=”Not enough product information displayed.”] Along with the truncated product names, there is no other information for a visitor to go on. The additional product data that is currently able to be displayed in the Marketplace (but I have chosen not too, for visual clarity) are the product descriptions (too long) and the price. I would like to display that seller’s username, but have not investigated yet how to code that in as a new piece of what is called metadata. [/toggle]

[toggle title=”The overall visual experience for browsing and shopping is confusing.”] This is a major sticking point. Clicking on a product takes you to the seller’s store, which is a completely different website. By this I mean, it has it’s own unique URL, theme, look, layout and content. Some of the seller’s have even paid us for a white label service in which I remove the Tea Trade bar from across the top of the their website. This alone has a tendency to break the flow of browsing because it feels like there is no way back to Tea Trade. This was a decision I made early on and I struggle with it.

A model for Tea Trade is Etsy, but on Etsy, sellers are forced to use the website and design that Etsy gives them. Our WordPress framework, however, gives the sellers more power, control and flexibility – here they can have their own website – fully branded and controlled by them and because we use WordPress, there really is no limit to what can be done. The look and feel of their site is only limited by their imagination and their finances. Knowing that we could provide that flexibility, I opted to allow our sellers to build out their own sites as they see fit instead of constraining them to a single template. In some ways this decision haunts us because it breaks the rules of a web browsing shopping experience by lacking visual consistency.[/toggle]

How did it get so bad?

It didn’t get bad, it’s just not developed. What you are actually seeing is the Marketplace with little enhancement since I set it up when we started. Did I make a mistake in not making the Marketplace a priority? Absolutely not. Tea Trade is a community. We host, maintain and provide support for a social network of nearly 100 websites (both blogs and stores). At any given time, a third of them are active and being used (even the inactive ones need maintenance). I respond to support inquiries 7 days a week and Jackie serves as an charming and intelligent host and is around here even more than I am. We prioritized the blogs, the forums and social networking aspects of Tea Trade in order to build a community. The actual Marketplace sat back and watched as dozens of independent blogs and tea websites were created over the last two years – all of them on our network, on Tea Trade – all connected together.

It was an operational decision that Jackie and I made together to focus on the community-building aspect instead of the Marketplace itself. The result has been fabulous, friendships and relationships have been formed even to the extent that members have enjoyed meeting each other in person in a series of international trips. We host the single most prolific tea review blog on the internet. We’ve enabled a homemaker a conduit to a startup tea business online (I’m proud of this one because I’ve seen at least a dozen online tea ventures start and fail since she started yet she still chugs along nicely). We also host six websites to channel to six different markets for an Australian tea seller. Not to mention the dozens of active blogs and forums that support.

Running a website network of this size requires a lot of work and expense. No, we’ve not focused on Marketplace because we were focused on other things. Perhaps this year, I’ll get some time out of our other projects to enhance the Marketplace, recruit some new sellers and help someone else get started in a business online.

I do agree that Tea Trade’s Marketplace is not perfect, but it is also not complete. Tea Trade itself is an ongoing project, something that I learn by doing.  The project is not over, and I have no intention of walking away. I think we all will enjoy a great 2013 and we will see what innovations I can come up with.

Thank you for reading this rather long-winded, first of 2013 post. If anything in this missive gave you anything to think about, please share your thoughts in the comments below. Remember, I love useful criticism!

peter

Peter Davenport is one of the founders of Tea Trade. In addition to building, enhancing and supporting Tea Trade and its members, he studies Business Administration and Management at American Public University with a focus on Entrepreneurial Studies and Enterprises.

Latest posts by peter (see all)

Comments

  1. Nicole Martin

    Well put! As a whole the tea community is usually so friendly that I always find it shocking when someone says or does something outside of that. I think it’s rather unnecessary as there is always a nicer way that something could be said.

  2. lazyliteratus

    As “just” a blogger on this page, I hadn’t really looked at the Marketplace very closely. After reading Walker’s criticism (albeit nonconstructive), I took a looksy. I see nothing wrong with it. Sure, it’s not organized, per se, but it is easy to follow. It’s mostly tailored around how the individual vendors organize their products. Tea Trade can’t necessarily be blamed for that.

    Where I will play devil’s advocate, though, is the wording of the Walker criticism itself…but my reasons are entirely subjective. While his wording was crass and kind of callous, so has mine been. (All I need to do is refer back to my “F**k Flavored Matcha” debacle for emphasis.) His “biznass” model is that of a vendor and tea reviewer, so he’s allowed to express opinions. As @happygaiwan illustrated, once you make the transition to a vendorship, some tact needs to be adopted. However, he still has a review model to his site as well. So, I can’t completely fault him for that.

    That said, I can still think he’s a douche for expressing said opinion in that way. It’s the price one pays for having an opinion like an a**hole. He has the right to say it, but we have the right to abhor it.

  3. Erik Kennedy

    Of course, Walker also meant ‘cite,’ not ‘site.’ Maybe he’s just struggling with the language generally.

  4. bram

    So, if I understand it correctly this walker-guy wants to be a leader in the tea world and he uses this clusterfuck-accusation to score.

    So either.

    1) He wants to stir things up with this nasty psychological trick and thereby showing/”using” influence.

    2) He wants to grow by pushing others down. I.e. highlight their shortcomings. I.e. showing his own shortcomings.

    3) Some option that I miss at the moment

    Either way not someone I would like as a leader. (apart from the fact that I don’t like leaders that strive to be leaders anyway, but I’m not sure if I can really call him that, looks like it though)

    As I said before the short visit to the marketplace showed me that the site is not worse than most of the internet: a work in progress. Could it be better? Of course it can. Could it have been better now? Of course, if the price of other things being less was paid. Or if more people were involved in developing. Let’s say a team the size Amazon or Ebay has…

  5. Ricardo Caicedo

    I don’t think he’ll grow much by alienating himself from the tea community, especially his fellow bloggers.
    I’m not a traffic expert, but from what I’ve seen, reaching out and interacting with others in the same niche will strengthen your own blog.

  6. bram

    @riccaicedo: It all depends on the people that fall for it. In a lot of companies this tactic often works because only a few right people up the chain have to fall for it. And people like this tend to fall for this behaviour themselves (my educated guess). It is not enough on itself, you still need some job related skill, but it helps. Luckily not everywhere. As a side effect it damages the atmosphere in the lower echelons, but that’s not important to them.

    Does it work in the tea-world? My experience is that this kind of tactic has less effect in an open structure, where it is easier to check claims, talk about it, more people think and speak when they disagree. This makes it harder for this kind of tactic to work, but not impossible. If he has a base of people that has learned to trust him it can still have it effect and the effect can grow from this base on. (people tend to question people they trust less than others). Now I think of it I’ve seen someone who showed similar behaviour (at least it looks like it once) and this person is seen as big in the tea-world (or more the sommeliers world).

    I will not go into details on that case, especially because I have seen only glimpses and might therefore have a completely wrong impression. But that also goes for this Walker-guy. He might be OK, even though my impression is not.

    The point I wanted to make is that it might work in certain parts of the tea-world. The parts he is aiming at.

  7. teapages

    I largely stay out of these discussions for a whole host of reasons but I feel like I need to speak up for a moment. As a blogger I have given many off-the-cuff statements and have definitely expressed frustrations with a product or experience. Blogging isn’t magazine writing and many of us use more conversational language and tone and talk about things we wouldn’t in other forums. While Jason used “colorful” language it certainly made clear how he felt about his experience with the marketplace. People can like his opinion or not but I happen to know Jason and don’t like that the comments have now turned into an attack on him as a person and his value to our community. He didn’t attack people; he criticized a product. I believe he is a valuable part of the tea community and has been contributing to tea blogging for far longer than many of us. I’m absolutely comfortable with a frank discussion of his opinion and prediction, but I hope it doesn’t defend further into personal attacks. Thanks for listening.

  8. Xavier

    The question is rather: is this a shop or a marketplace?
    You don’t expect the same from each.

  9. Robert Godden

    As I said on Chris’ original post, the comparison with Tealet is really odd. The sites are not really similar.
    Personally, Tea Trade is community first, marketplace second.

  10. Jackie

    @teapages In our close knit tea community most of us want to support each other’s endeavors – and many of us have endeavors besides just blogging for fun. There is no easy opt out claiming “I’m just criticizing a product.” If Jason described your book as a total diaster on his public site, would that affect your relationship with him? How could it not? I can assure you I’d be upset Nicole, if anyone in our community dissed your work in those words in public. I’d be embarrassed for all of us.

    Just recently one of our blogger’s writings was criticized quite bluntly by another community member. There was uproar. It wasn’t about the critic’s rights to freedom of speech. It was about the lack of supportive spirit. Everyone knows you are theoretically free to do as you please. That’s not the issue. Whether you choose to use that freedom, and how you go about it, that’s the issue. That’s a personal choice. I am disappointed about the choice Jason made.

    Let’s not kid ourselves that we’re criticizing a product from a large, faceless corporation. We’re not faceless, you’re not. You can try and separate a product from its creator but creators are people. If the product is labeled bad then you are labeling the people who created it, bad at what they do. I can’t wash my hands off my product and pretend it has nothing to do with me.

    All this aside, my main concern with his statement was that it depicted us only as a marketplace. No mention at all of our primary function which is social. That is Tea Trade’s strength because its strength is its people. Do not throw all of us into a pot called “clusterfuck.”

  11. teapages

    Jackie – Let me be clear. I can absolutely understand why you and Peter and your friends and supporters would be upset. I get it. Of course I would likely feel the same way. I think Peter did an excellent job crafting his response and it was valuable in advancing the conversation. I was more reacting to the directions the comments were heading. I agree that we need to support each other so I just get uncomfortable when any of it turns into attack.

    I agree completely that Tea Trade is about the social connections and I thank you and Peter for creating that opportunity for all of us. It is an important addition to our tea community.

  12. bram

    I think that it would be good for all if Jason was invited to explain himself and put the image that this situation created of him straight. Of course followed by a proper discussion based on ideas and content instead of person.

    I don’t think it is my place to invite him (at least not before others have a change to), but I would like to suggest it. I for one would love it if this negative image based on insufficient (but negative) data points is corrected.

  13. lazyliteratus

    @TeaPages I think you’re right. Tempers are a-flarin’ a bit. Even mine did a little. I guess I’m a little protective when it comes down to it. The criticism was legitimate, the wording sucked, and we can all agree on that. We can also agree that TT is like a start-up app; every once in awhile it needs patches when issues come up. Work-in-progress, as they say.

    I’d like to point out, though, that if any of us had said something that can be misconstrued – in a blog, tweet, whatever – we’d reiterate. I know I would. I have had to amend statements in the past. Jason did something a little callous. He did omit “clusterfuck” from the narrative of the blog entry…but instead replaced it with a definition of clusterfuck…and linked it back to the Wiktionary entry for clusterfuck. That shows a little bit of callous disregard for discussion.

    I don’t know Jason, I don’t have a clue what he’s like. All I know him from are his writings…and this is not endearing me to him as a professional.

    When I was doing tea reviews still, I got called out for a VERY negative review I gave a particular aged pu-erh. I hated it. I said as much. The vendor replied to the review in the comment section – naturally defensive, but also with suggestions. While I didn’t back-pedal the review, the resulting dialogue opened up a working relationship that is still in existence today.

    As far as I know, Jason has not attempted to engage the criticism of his criticism in a constructive way. Then again, I suppose we haven’t either – except for @Peter.

    I think I need to write further on the subject.

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