Always so, so, so true. And it’s not just in startups and others in the private sector, but also in government and non-profit work. The raison d’être for nearly all such organizations is 1) execute their mission and 1) maintain viability. You’ll notice both are #1, because both require the other. Design, like digital products themselves, are just means to those two ends. When we begin to believe design or the experience or whatever is more important than these things or will require sacrificing these things, then we are no longer professionals but simply ego-driven, fishbowl-mentality, design divas who perform a disservice to any unlucky enough to seek our services.
Of course, this does *not* mean we should not focus on design and do it the best we can. The executive types are focusing on the business piece and the tech folks are focusing on that, which leaves us focusing on design…by design! However, we need to place our efforts within a larger design strategy that fits into the overall business/tech strategy. If such a strategy is not clear, then someone with a design hat should begin focusing on how to create a design strategy that will help the enterprise achieve #1 and #1 above. Because if all we are doing is making beautiful experiences, but that does not actually align with the real needs of the business, then design is not actually helping the business, hence is just masturbation.
For some great reading on this vastly important — and often quite absent — part of design, check out http://enterprisedesignframework.com