After 16 Years, Google Is Doing the 1 Thing No Company Should Ever Do

When you draw a line between 2004 and Gmail becoming the dominant email service in the world, there’s one thing that stands out: it was free. It’s hard to remember that there was a time when your email was something you either paid for or got through your internet service provider. And, if you got your email from your ISP, it was probably really bad. 

Gmail, on the other hand, gave users what was at the time essentially endless storage. Technically, it was only 1 gigabyte, but that was such a massive amount of storage at a time when your laptop might have had 10GB. And, again, it was free.

Sure, Gmail had other benefits, like the fact that it solved a very real problem of searching your email. In fact, the reason Gmail gave you so much storage is so that you never had to delete or organize emails, you could just archive them and use search to find whatever you needed. Mostly, however, I think it’s fair to make the case that more than 3 billion people use Gmail today because it’s free.

In 2006, Gmail went so far as to let users sign up and bring with them their custom domain. That was a huge deal for small businesses since it made it far easier to have an email address that matches your business, without having to jump through the complicated hoops that existed at the time. Even that was free at the time. 

Over time, however, Google changed its business offerings to a paid model. It was still a great deal, especially compared to the competition at $5 a month. For those early customers, however, Google promised that it would always remain free. 

Technically, what Google said at the time was that “organizations that sign up during the beta period will not ever have to pay for users accepted during that period (provided Google continues to offer the service).” Those parentheses are doing a lot of work. Obviously, Google isn’t offering the same service. I mean, it changed the name and everything. Just because it still includes email and Docs, and whatever, it’s different, right? 

Well, that time has come. Google is now requiring businesses who still have a G Suite Legacy Free Edition account to transition to a paid Workspace account by June 27. If you don’t, the company will do it for you. If you don’t start paying by August 1, Google will suspend your account.

This is bad on a lot of levels, but really there’s only one that matters: If you make a promise, you have to keep it. Just because you reserve the right to back out of your promise, doesn’t mean you should. In fact, I’d argue that’s the one thing no company should ever do. Why? Because trust is your brand’s most valuable asset. 

It’s especially bad because of the massive imbalance on either side of this equation. On one side you have small businesses, like flower shops and accountants. On the other side, you have the fourth-largest company in the world–A company that made a record $257 billion last year. 

That’s part of the problem. As a company grows, it gets harder and harder to move the needle. If you’ve signed up everyone for your product or service, you reach a point where there’s no one left to sign up. That’s not complicated.

So, you might start to find ways to make money from your existing customers. That’s tempting because it’s always easier to just raise prices. The thing is, that doesn’t make it right.

Honestly, the whole thing just feels, well, icky. Obviously, Google is a company and companies exist to make money. But, as an aside, I can’t imagine Google would really lose out on a whole lot of money if it just let those customers continue to keep what it promised them 16 years ago. 

That’s the lesson for every business. If you make a promise, you have to keep it, even if you see a chance to break your promise to make more money. In the long run, that ends up costing you far more. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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