Entrepreneurism should skew toward ethics, not optics.
The mythical romanticism of ‘crushing it’ has to evolve into something deeper.
Ethics: Moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity.
In many ways entrepreneurism is about freedom and self-determination; disruption and efficiency; execution and tactical deconstruction. Yet the modern narrative of entrepreneurism seems to bend toward mythical storytelling, golden popularity, situationally assisted pseudo-success, speed, posturing, make-believe exits and neutered aqui-hires.
As many of our young people begin without much help from elders and family along the maze to success, the start toward entrepreneurism can lack ethical foundation. Perhaps compounding this, many of the folks that activate the entrepreneurial community are not hardcore operators but financiers, networkers and evangelizers. Long past are the days where apprenticeship and trade-mastery were commonplace.
As entrepreneurial folks we want to do things our own way, and we expect everything yesterday. There are no prerequisites. We hear the success stories. We read the news. We learn about the 80 hour weeks. We look to the ‘successful’ people; we try to get close to them; we try to learn their language; we emulate them. They raise money; we want to raise money. They wear blazers with jeans; we need to do the same. As we emulate to assimilate, it’s quite easy to follow inertia and adopt the wrong mythical ideals—overlooking our foundation.
In startup practice, the above forces tend to manifest into environments which are constrained by success by all means necessary. Raw success seems to be the main protagonist for directional inertia and process, while ethics seem secondary.
By All Means Necessary
Success by all means necessary is rooted in ‘optical’ success. ‘Optics’ would mean that we can craft a defensible story to convince others that we are currently—or will soon be—‘crushing it.’ These optics could include rounds of money we’ve raised, press mentions, employee headcount, user reach and engagement, or any number of obscure metrics that don’t involve raw profitability, retention and product sell-through. Surely, for some companies these optical constructions end up in big paydays and acquisitions. For those who undershoot the target, optical success is the dubious simulation that obviously ends in failure.
Sadly, ‘optical’ successes are usually malignant and terminal, amassed with intense collateral damage. Business is a giant pressure cooker where ethics sometimes seem easier to consider on the far side of failure.
If we make business all about optical success and/or money, the grand possibility is ethical dissonance. This dissonance will be seen at every level of magnification.
The most compelling form of entrepreneurism should be informed by holistic ethics. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we need more ‘buy one, give one’ brands, or another coconut water startup, or another meditation app. It means asking ourselves the right questions. What type of products/services do we want to sell? How should we treat ourselves? How should we treat others? Should we embellish and stretch reality to get ‘ahead’ (to ourselves, our peers, our vendors, our customers), or should our word be our bond? What is real success?
Let’s start with the most simple and perhaps the most important principle of all: sell a product or service that people actually want and need—a product that random people have voluntarily shown a willingness to pay for. Without this, all of our efforts will be an artifact of some sort of dissonance. Our customers don’t really want/need what we’re selling. Our employees in the trenches don’t really believe in the product mission—even if they they buy into the marketing hype. Vendors and partners will sit on the fence and force disadvantageous terms to protect themselves from uncertain outcomes; investors will do the same. The list goes on…
Selling products that people don’t really need is much harder and vastly more expensive—especially in our crowded startup environment. To sell these products we will need to find the lowest functioning purchaser and convince them to need our offering.
Which type of people do I want to work with? Am I comfortable working with schemey tricksters, unorganized people, people obsessed with ‘optics’, title chasers, talkers?
Would my life and career take a more fulfilling trajectory working with honest folks, those with traditional business values, folks who have properly apprenticed and paid their dues under masters in trade/service, etc?
Will my work environment and product development process cater to my own personality and emotional needs, or rather the core structural and productivity needs of my people? Creatives need quiet. Marketing folks need places to riff. Engineers need a special, process-oriented collaborative quiet.
Do I expect to work 80 hours per week? Do I want the same from my team? Building ethical environments for people should be paramount. Our environments should promote quality of life and product. Strangely these two are almost always aligned.
Again we come back to the potential manifestation of dissonance. How we approach our product foundation; how we treat ourselves; who we decide to work with; how we treat others; and how we structure our professional environments—will either solidify the glue that binds our professional trajectory, integrity and success, or it will introduce decay that resonates into an unsustainable mess. This mess can and will transcend work to become existential for founders, employees and families.
What is real success?
Success will really depend on what an individual is comfortable optimizing against. This is where the murky fog of ethics and integrity emerge. Shall I optimize against my personal ethics or external illusory optics?
If our business base is focused on optics as the primary indicator of success, we most likely evade real truths and reality. How many high-flying startups seem to disappear into the ether in this way? More importantly, how much scorched earth do they leave in their wake? Do these failures open into a job market with more happy, healthy, well-trained and well-adjusted workers—or do they result in depressed, overworked and jaded people?
The path to success should include challenging ourselves to ask the right questions along the way. Without asking these questions, we could sadly end up on the wrong side of life and community.