Don’t Be Evil, But Don’t Be Saint Entrepreneur Either

Joe Procopio
6 min readFeb 12, 2019

Let’s have a conversation about rules, ethics, and morals in startup.

I like to think I’ve run a clean ship my entire entrepreneurial career, and yet I still very much live by the entrepreneur’s motto: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.” It’s a balance, an almost constant struggle to end up on the right side of right.

But the line between good and evil isn’t as fine as others would have you believe. And it pisses me off when that line gets crossed so cavalierly. I’m looking at you Elizabeth Holmes and Billy McFarland and the hundreds more who have excused their unethical behavior by invoking the fact that, hey, entrepreneurs have to break the rules.

Shrug.

They’re right, but they’re also very wrong. It actually matters what you’re going to ask permission or beg forgiveness for.

Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

Startup was built on the breaking of rules. See, rules are usually set by incumbents, those entities that have a vested interest in the status quo remaining the status quo.

Rules are the fertile soil in which old boys networks grow — and I use that term because it’s colloquial — there are definitely networks of old and young, men and women — in fact insert any demographic you want into that equation.

But come on, it’s usually old men.

The awesome thing is, when those networks exist, they are ripe for disruption, and that disruption starts by questioning the rules of the incumbents, then breaking them. We’re seeing this in cable television right now, we’ve seen it produce the gig economy in several other industries.

The downside is when the incumbents get too entrenched, you get quagmires like the American political system. But even there, eventually someone will find a way to get around those rules, which usually starts with finding a back door into a room surrounded by walls made out of money. We thought that might happen with the Internet, but that’s not working out. Thanks, Facebook.

Ethics Keep the Peace

So as I like to do, let me use a simple example to explain the difference between rules and…

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Joe Procopio

I'm a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. NLG pioneer. Building TeachingStartup.com & GROWERS. Write at Inc.com and BuiltIn.com. More at joeprocopio.com