Money isn’t the root of all evil. It’s the root of a lot of assholes.
A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.
- Henry Ford
I have a fundamental problem with the idea that a company should exist solely to line the pockets of its investors, founders and employees. That’s an attitude that gives rise to corporations screwing people over for a few bucks — and making dumb calls along the way.
It’s an attitude that is costing Volkswagen literally billions of dollars, because they tried to cheat on their emissions and squeeze cash out of it. There’s no words for it, other than greed and stupidity.
At the same time, I don’t endorse the idea that profits and business models and your bottom line are unimportant. That’s a bad way to run a company. In fact, ignoring money would be a bad way to enjoy a hobby.
Here’s what I do believe. I believe that every startup, every business and every company has a series of higher responsibilities that must take priority over profit, from time to time. They don’t exist in a vacuum, and they don’t exist solely to generate income.
A business has a responsibility to the wider public.
Every business should be trying to contribute something positive to society. Whether it’s through donating to charity, donating their employees’ time to charity, standing up for what is ethically right, or just refusing to do business with those who are in the wrong, a business has an ethical duty.
Because they are an entity with the power to effect positive and negative change. And that power comes with a need to be used. When a business uses their power of money, human resources and influence to do something good, it’s positive. Things change for the better. When they don’t use it, it’s as bad as trying to force negative change, because stagnation itself is bad.
When a business operates in society, they benefit from the existing social structure, from the existing social order, and from the lives of the people who choose and use their products or services.
Bonus. If you’re improving the world your future employees live in, you’ll get better people working for your company, who will enable you to do better things.
A business has a responsibility to innovate.
Innovation is not just a way to generate new products and transform your business. Innovation is also about improving the quality of life, and the living experience of your customers and society as a whole. That’s what smartphones did. That’s what laptops did. That’s what electric cars will do.
Right now, the companies who would benefit from Tesla’s complete failure would be the ones who make money from oil, from irresponsibly designed cars, and from damaging the environment. Those companies depend on a lack of innovation, in order for their profits to continue. That lack of innovation would be bad for every fucking one of us.
A business must always look at ways in which their products improve lives. Making anything gives you a certain level of responsibility for its repercussions.
Bonus. If your product makes your customers’ lives better, they’re going to buy it in droves.
A business must attempt to do no harm.
The word disruption is thrown around a lot. I don’t think it means what many entrepreneurs think it means.
Because half the time, I get the sneaking suspicion they think innovation means poking around the world and breaking what they don’t like.
I’m not saying that a business should refuse to innovate in order to save jobs or stop progress to protect industries. I’ve had enough shitty experiences in the back seat of a Taxi to be fed up with people feeling sorry for them.
What I am saying is that a business should question the way they execute their disruption, and ask themselves whether their product will have a generally harmful or helpful impact. It’s not about finding a product that will make money, it’s about asking yourself if that money is worth it.
Nobody needs a more effective assault rifle right now. They’d buy it if it was there, but killing more people isn’t a benefit we should be looking for.
It’s the same as the Peeple app. Nobody needed a more innovative way to fuck with each others’ lives and bully people online. Just because there was a perceived gap in the market, didn’t mean it had to be filled.
Bonus. You won’t get torn apart by the New York Post.
I don’t want to come across as a hippy. I’m not naive, and I know business is business. But we’ve all lived through the GFC. We’ve all lived in a world that’s been damaged by out of control businesses, irresponsible entrepreneurs and corporations who don’t care about people.
None of that is going to change. There are always going to be directors and board members so far removed from the lives they’re shattering that they’ll choose a quick buck and a quick fuck over doing the right thing.
But I’m talking here to anyone founding a startup today. You are not exempt from doing the right thing. You don’t get to use technology, innovation or disruption as an excuse for screwing people. You have a responsibility, and you must meet it.
I’ve always loved that quote:
A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business. - Henry Ford
I love it because it sums up the way I see companies. I love it because Henry Ford himself wasn’t perfect, and he was an industrialist. But even he could see the responsibilities that came with his innovation.
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Jon Westenberg has appeared and published in Business Insider, Inc.com, TIME and dozens of other publications, talking about startup entrepreneurship, writing and innovation. Jon has helped hundreds of businesses worldwide grow their audience and take control of their future. Jon is an investor, an entrepreneur and a dreamer.
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