How to Maintain Your Integrity in a Hyper-Competitive Business Environment
Just because you’re a startup doesn’t mean you get to cheat
Every entrepreneur will arrive at a crossroads where we can do the right thing and lose or do the wrong thing and win. If that kind of win never sits right with you, read on.
I asked my email list for their horror stories on the costs of integrity, and lack of integrity, in business, especially around startup. The results were explosive in their volume, brutal in their honesty, and mostly painful in their outcome.
Each story also aligned neatly with one or more items in my guidance below, so please bear in mind that while I have to keep the stories private, the advice is real, and the evidence is overwhelming.
The overarching moral? Maintaining your integrity in a hyper-competitive business environment is easy… until it isn’t.
First, Decide What Kind of Entrepreneur You’re Going To Be
Look, I’m not here to save your soul. Passing judgment takes way too much time and energy that I’d rather spend on my day job.
If you’re in startup to fleece the suckers, be they too-rich investors or sheep customers or both, carry on, I’ve got nothing for you. If you’re trying to game the system or find the loopholes, you’re in startup for different reasons than me. There are volumes of information on the Internets to get you to untold riches. I’d tell you that they’re all lying to you, but you’re probably not going to listen to me on your way out.
Making the decision to maintain your integrity through the lifecycle of your business is not one-and-done or set-it-and-forget-it. It’s a decision you’re going to have to revisit multiple times under complex circumstances. There will be many “steal bread to save your starving family” moments along the way.
I’m being a little facetious. There won’t be any of those moments, just situations where you’ll try to convince yourself you’re doing something for the greater good. I know. I’ve been there.
In fact, I personally believe that some of the greatest startup rip-off artists of our time — the Adam Neumanns, the Elizabeth Holmeses — they didn’t wake up one morning cackling and rubbing their hands together with their super-devious startup idea. Nah, I believe they started with the best intentions, which ended up paving their highway to hell.
Everyone has a price. And sometimes it’s not even monetary. We entrepreneurs are megalomaniacal by nature, and the best ones, like the best athletes, don’t go into the game thinking it’s cool as long as everybody plays fair and has fun.
Your integrity will be tested. Be prepared for some “that’ll never happen to me” situations. Startup comes with a lot of slippery slopes. And the only way to keep from sliding down them is to never set foot on them in the first place.
Always Tell the Truth
Again, this sound really simplistic and easy and pedestrian until you consider one of those slippery slope scenarios.
“Russ” told me about the time he and his management team raised a few million on an MVP in which 80% of the process was manual. They “hoped” that they could automate that 80% with the money, but they told the investors they “knew” they could automate it if they got the money.
One tiny little word of difference = $6 million evaporated, 25 jobs lost, and two years wasted selling something that was ultimately unsustainable.
Startups are always at a competitive disadvantage, from the moment they have the idea until they reach the top of the market-share mountain. It’s a long slog and it’s like everyone is just asking you to exaggerate or hype or stretch just a little to get past finish lines which keep moving as you get closer.
It’s totally not fair. I agree. Don’t lie.
Do What You’re Supposed To Do
In other words, tell the truth and live that truth. A lot of liars rationalize a lie in retrospect because they convinced themselves they were telling the truth at the time they told the lie.
“Shiela” was a developer at a company that launched a buggy, shoddy, copycat software product at cut-rate prices with a 100% satisfaction guarantee.
“It was so easy to sell,” she related. “And management completely believed that the guarantee and the sales that came from it would be enough to get them to their next round of financing. They made promises to me and my team that the new money would be used to hire more developers to patch the holes.”
This is a common startup strategy, but within a few months, the majority of the company’s customers began to take advantage of the 100% guarantee and demand their refund. However, the fundraising was taking longer than the founders had thought it might, so rather than do what they were supposed to do, they stopped issuing refunds altogether.
Did they make to to their next round of financing? Absolutely they did, which they then spent on additional salespeople to sell the same buggy software with the same 100% guarantee that they still planned to honor, just not right away.
The first lawsuit was a surprise, the next several were a disaster. Shiela never got those additional developers.
Don’t Let Mistakes Become Excuses
A lie is a mistake. Not doing what you’re supposed to do is a mistake. It’s easy to make mistakes. It’s good to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Where we screw this up, with ourselves and with people who are in our charge, is excusing the mistake instead of punishing it.
I know that sounds harsh. But punishment isn’t eye-for-an-eye, it’s maybe-this-kick-in-the-ass-will-make-you-a-better-person. There is no lesson to be learned from a mistake without punishment.
“Deon” told me the story about his company pushing a major product update to market too quickly, resulting in several quality checks not being done. The company accepted that they had over-paced the release, and paid out bonuses to the team responsible for those quality checks anyway.
The company fixed their own mistake, and the next release was properly paced, but guess what? The team responsible for the quality checks didn’t complete all the quality checks again. The expectation had been set.
We’ll brush our own mistakes under the table too, and promise ourselves we’ve learned our lesson and we’ll never do that again. But we always do that again. We’ll keep doing it until it hurts.
Stay Away From Blame
I’m going to get a little soapboxy with this one, but assessing blame is the scourge of the modern era. As a society, we spend way too much time trying to figure out who is going to pay for the mistake and not enough time figuring out how to pay for the mistake.
On the surface, staying away from blame sounds like a direct contradiction of don’t let a mistake go unpunished. But shame and punishment aren’t interchangeable.
Blame and shame are public, and they make everyone feel better except for the perpetrator. Punishment is private, it’s directed at the perpetrator and it shouldn’t make anyone feel any better, including any victims.
Thus, the vast majority of our time and effort needs to be spent righting the wrong and making any victim whole. Get past blame and shame and punishment quickly and put all the resources on correcting the mistake.
Think about it this way — How many times have you heard a heartfelt or tearful apology from a person or an entity or a corporation and the behavior just continues?
Integrity isn’t found in pointing fingers, even at ourselves. Integrity is about correcting the problem.
Don’t Do Anything You Have To Hide
In other words, if you can’t sell your product to your mother, don’t sell your product.
There are a number of valid reasons why you’ll need to keep stuff under wraps: Intellectual property, trade secrets, personally identifiable information, competitive analysis, etc.
But the more secret meetings, locked cabinets, and non-sharable document folders you have, the greater the chances that something is going to come back to bite you.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription for deciding what needs to be private and what needs to be public. An older colleague of mine once put it like this: “If you’re going to hide something, it’s because it’s either a treasure or a turd. Don’t hide the turds.”
Yeah, not a wordsmith, but he’s a good person.
Chase Something Other Than Profit
Coming full circle to the beginning of this post, if you’re in startup strictly to make money, you’ll probably make it until you get caught. Your startup has needs and wants. You need to be profitable, but you don’t need to want to be profitable.
I wrote a piece a while back about how an entrepreneur has to be on a mission, and the more that money is a part of that mission, the lesser the chance the mission will succeed.
And again, I’m not telling you how to live your life, I’m just saying you can’t chase money and integrity at the same time.
Money will always win.
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