The problem with The Grid, a web platform announced in October of 2014 that promises to use artificial intelligence (AI) to design websites, is that you can't get off of it. You can't get off The Grid.
When The Grid was announced back in October 2014, I was quick to sign up, and became "founding member" number 1635. On their FAQ page, they stated that founding members would not get refunds. They also stated that The Grid would be released in late spring 2015 (around May). Between October and May, I happily talked about The Grid on social media, expressed excitement, and began the preparations to take down and archive my current WordPress site. What The Grid was promising looked fantastic, and their own site was beautiful. On March 20th, an email came out to alert founding members know that "We plan to invite Founding Members by waves into a rolling beta as spring comes to an end in June. Remember, the earlier you signed up and the more referrals you've earned, the sooner you'll be invited."
This seemed a bit different than I remembered, this "rolling beta" but I accepted it. I noticed that The Grid continued to solicit publicity, getting write-ups on tech websites and at conferences, wowing people (and no doubt increasing founding memberships) with big promises of what they would do.
But then late spring 2015 came and went, and there was no Grid. Instead, there was an email, arriving on May 15, 2015, that was typical startup cutesy clever, apologizing, telling founding members (which were now in the 40,000+ range) that they wanted to get it perfect and it wasn't ready for wide use yet. I was beginning to wonder, at this point, how they could talk so freely about what they would be doing, and how they could demo it, when it wasn't actually working.
Somewhere in there, between 50,000 people shelling out $96 each, The Grid also received $4.6 million in venture funding. And they continued to hype their product and get more attention.
On June 5, 2015, another email came out, explaining in detail some of the tech they were working on. Still no access.
On June 22, 2015, with more than 50,000+ founding members, they rolled out beta access to...100 users. We were placated by being told that we'd get an additional six months free at the end of our paid-for-year subscription because of the delay. I was getting annoyed; my website traffic was now nil, because I'd prepped to take it down and move to The Grid. Other founding members on Twitter were acknowledging similar annoyances, but were getting only empty promises of "soon!" and "we want to get it right!" and "when we release it it's going to be awesome!".
Another email came out on July 8, 2015, seemingly to answer the most common questions that were flaring up on Twitter. And there were still only 100 people in beta, actually using The Grid. There was only one test site available to see, and it was not terribly impressive. I was mostly disinterested in The Grid at this point, both by their business practices, empty promises, and the resulting product they'd turned out so far.
On August 17, 2015, another email came out telling us how busy the team has been working on The Grid. "So yeah, the beta testers have been busy. And we’ve been busy. Busyness has occurred. We’ve nearly doubled the number of Founders in the beta, and with their help, we’ve made a lot of great progress." They listed all of the new people they'd hired, and then tacked a survey at the end which basically tried to find out if founding members wanted...more regular updates.
I can safely say that most founding members wanted the actual product instead of updates, since, at this point, The Grid was three months behind.
I queried The Grid on Twitter and asked if a refund was possible. "Contact email@example.com" they said. But I waited. I really couldn't believe this was a scam. I figured they had to deliver, didn't they? Yet I wasn't excited about using the platform anymore, imagining how getting tech support after it went live would go if this is how it went before I got access.
Finally, on September 11, 2015, I gave up. I emailed support and asked for a refund. Here is their reply:
"Howdy Julie -
Thanks for reaching out. I'm sorry to hear that you no longer want to be a Founding Member. I know that the delays have been a real letdown for you. Please accept my heartfelt apology for keeping you waiting. Unfortunately, we do not offer refunds for Founding Memberships. Our refund policy is stated at http://thegrid.io/faq
Thanks for your understanding on this. We are working hard to get you access as soon as we can. We want you on there using The Grid as bad as you do. Let me know if I can do anything else!
All the best"
Hell. No. I responded:
I was directed to contact support by whoever on The Grid's twitter account to request a refund. Since I signed up more than a year ago with the website stating that the sites would be ready by late spring 2015, and that did not happen, I WILL be getting my refund back. If not, I am going to raise holy hell on Twitter as well as contact my credit card company and, if necessary, file a small claim and start a legal proceeding.
You didn't deliver when you promised. I don't care how cute your emails are explaining why this was. When I signed up, the promise was late spring 2015. It is now September, and even though you later explained why you couldn't meet that date, the FAQ you link to, when I read them, was in reference to that original promise which you did not keep.
Get me my refund. Because anything less than a refund is bullshit."
I then proceeded to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, my state's attorney general, and my credit card company. I also went full ballistic on Twitter, both The Grid's account and the founder's. I kept The Grid update on each of those activities, realizing, as I looked through their Twitter feed, that they were refusing the requests of many founding members who wanted out. I tacked on an explanation for my reaction to one of those follow-up emails to The Grid:
"Let me tell you something -- this is not how you behave now, especially if you are branding yourself as a young, hip startup with a ground-breaking product. You're using business techniques from the Byzantine era -- how hip is that? You think you're going to change the world with your AI site and have everyone falling all over you and have lots of money coming in from customers and venture funding, but because you are not able to deliver you think withholding money from those who want a refund is a great plan? How do you think that is going to add to your online "brand" and overall feelings towards you? I've been remarkably genial towards The Grid, touting it and talking about it for a year -- a DAMN YEAR -- and now that it is clear that all you have is apologies and cute emails offering puppies, I have to move on. You have not delivered a product, you missed your deadline, and yet you think it's smart to hold onto my money because of a single line in your FAQ? You broke your promise first. But you won't break your FAQ? That sucks, incredibly.
I tell you, I went after Verizon with #365DaysOfVerizonSucks on social media, and I'm willing to do the same to you. You have an image problem on two fronts: you didn't deliver, and you won't refund money. You can do something about that last one and at least let people feel like you're not out there cheating. I can't even believe you're operating like that, refusing refunds to someone who paid a year ago when you overshot your deadline.
My god. "
This morning I received an email from The Grid:
"Hi Julie -
Though it does go against our stated refund policy, we have gone ahead and made an exception and refunded your purchase, which should post to your account in the next 2-3 business days. A confirmation of that refund will follow in a separate email.
All the best"
I don't care if The Grid is the most amazing thing in the world. I don't care if the managed to magically open up a beta to influencer Jeff Goins. I don't care if they go to conferences and get PR hype, or get featured by Tech Crunch. The truth is, they need to focus more on building their product, living up to their hype and promises, and stop chasing after more money and accolades. If they couldn't deliver on time, they had no business to keep pulling in "founding members" up to the near 60,000+ mark. They had more than enough money, time, and staff to deliver. And, since they have dragged their feet and behaved this way, they've sullied their brand and also opened the door to others approaching web design in a similar "automated" way.
Here's a lesson to startups: you might think this is a new era in business, and that clever emails and casual engagement on Twitter will cover a lot of gaffs, but the truth of business is still the same: you take someone's money, you have to deliver what you promise.
If you are desiring a refund from The Grid, I'd recommend going full bore at the process like I did, including a report to the BBB, your credit card company, and so on.
Up until now, my only feelings toward The Grid were mere annoyance but no ill will, yet by refusing my refund despite their breach of contract, they enraged (and are enraging) a lot of people who might have, down the road, signed up under a higher amount once the system was live.
To The Grid, I'd recommend you give out a refund to anyone who asks at this point. You have no legs to stand on besides excuses for why you can't deliver. You're doing more harm than good by holding onto people's money.
UPDATE: They have also taken in additional income from ads, so The Grid has the money. https://twitter.com/rjkmelb/status/639915568078848000
UPDATE 2: You can also read this on Medium: https://medium.com/@JulieNeidlinger/the-problem-with-the-grid-f82511a937a4