Every company -- startup, franchise, or conglomerate -- has a mission. But while employees and executives do what they can to follow that objective and stay true to it, sometimes customers have different ideas.
The latest example of that involves 23andMe, a company that provides materials for at-home genetic testing. It’s a fairly simple process: customers swab some cheek cells, mail them back and wait to hear the results. The service is intended to give people a more in-depth look at who they are and where they come from. Unfortunately, it can unintentionally expose the DNA of the skeletons in a person’s closet.
Earlier this month, Vox published the story of an unnamed biologist who used 23andMe to provide an interesting teaching moment for his students. Thinking that his parents might enjoy learning more about what he does, the man bought kits for his parents and himself. After he checked a box saying he’d like to be notified of his closest genetic connections (of those who also took the 23andMe test and selected that option), he got word that he was a 22 percent genetic match with a man he’d never heard of. Statistically, sharing 25 percent of your genetic material with someone makes them your grandfather, your uncle or your half-sibling, so he asked his father about it. His father was sure the company had made a mistake.
The facts were correct, however, proving that no mistake had been made. The biologist had a half-brother from his father’s pre-marital affair decades earlier. Unable to survive the shock of discovering an unknown lovechild, the scientist’s parents divorced and tensions remain high. “I'm really devastated at the outcome,” the man told the publication. “This is nothing I ever would have wished.”
This isn’t the first time 23andMe has caused trouble. Apparently, as was the case with Neil Schwartzman and Jolie Pearl, the service can also be used to find long-lost siblings given up for adoption. While the company used the story of the sibling reunion as a marketing campaign with a happy ending, Pearl admits that she feels conflicted about the unexpected rewrite of her family’s history. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration has officially expressed written concern “about the public health consequences of inaccurate results,” although no study to date has reported “measurable harm” as a result of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing program.
To be fair, 23andMe isn’t the only company to have its products or services used in a way other than its intended purpose. Facebook, for example, started as a way to keep in touch with friends (and maybe find out if the cute co-ed in your Psych 101 class was seeing anyone), but it has unintentionally helped create and promote the new phenomenon of FOMO -- “fear of missing out.”
Similarly, Airbnb, which was intended to make it easier for people to find places to stay, ended up almost making someone homeless. The peer-to-peer homeshare company was started in 2008 as a way to coordinate and transact rentals, gives vacationers a cheaper option than hotels for lodging. But what if the “vacationer” has no intention of leaving? What if an Airbnb user decides to make the homestay permanent, as happened to Corey Tschogl ? When the renter wouldn’t leave her California condominium, Tschogl found out eviction would be harder than expected, now that the squatter had been there for over 30 days and had tenants’ rights according to state law. It turns out that “professional squatters” exist, and services like Airbnb help them to find unknowing targets. It’s not what the company intended, but it’s become something to be aware of.
Then there’s Yelp, a website which allows people to rate and comment on their experience with businesses. Although it began as a way to allow business to get feedback from customers, it is also being used by health authorities in New York City to track foodborne illnesses and find their epicenters, since many cases of food poisoning go unreported. Using Yelp helped successfully find three unreported outbreaks, which allowed officials to crack down on restaurants that violated proper practices of handling food, including improper refrigeration and unsanitary conditions. Chicago is implementing a similar investigation via Twitter.
Perhaps when starting a business, it’s wise to remember the old adage of how the best laid plans can go awry.