Don't Be Evil

Don't Be Evil
by David C. Murphy (@DavidCMurphy)

Editor's note: David C. Murphy is the Founder & CEO of TechFire. Long passionate about ethics & business, his thesis at Claremont McKenna College was on "doing well" while "doing good." 

Megan Smith, the former Google[x] executive who joined the White House as Chief Technology Officer of the United States last Fall, had a great line in the her interview in the New York Times Magazine, when asked about the problems of government: "If you come, you can bring your own methods. The American government will be whatever we all make of it."

The same, of course, is true for the startup world. What kind of business culture do we want? Here's a suggestion:

Don't be evil.

Sure, the company that bears that motto isn't perfect. No company, and no person is. 

But we can -- and should -- try.  

Bad Boys of Tech?
In recently months, there has been a lot of talk about bad behavior in tech.  And sadly, there have been concrete examples of bad behavior, which rightfully have been reported on far and wide.  It seems it'd do a lot of good for more of Silicon Valley to take the "Don't Be Evil" approach to heart.

Sarah Lacy's 6000 word piece, "Silicon Valley has an asshole problem" continues to be an important read. She laid out her view of the problem, "decrying the sad reality [of] the continual erosion of what Silicon Valley—as a place—stands for, if anything."  Talk of intimidating her for daring to speak out is deplorable.  Instead, as a tech community, we should step back and look at what more we can do to be disruptive -- but always being careful to make the world a better place as we do it, not worse.

One investor told Kara Swisher in Vanity Fair  that "it’s hard to be a disrupter and not be an asshole."

Maybe. But maybe not. 

There's no question you do sometimes have to go to war to fight for what's right. Heck, there would be no United States without a revolutionary war. There's no question some of the greatest innovations in the tech world have come out of cutthroat competition, from the iPhone vs. Android battle, to the Mac vs Windows in decades prior.

But when we seek to emulate Steve Jobs' business acumen, say, we shouldn't imitate his flaws -- like his lies to his friend Steve Wozniak about the amount of money Atari paid them which they were supposed to split.

It's possible to go too far. 

In the startup world, founders love to talk about changing the world. We have to ask, what kind of world, then, do we want to live in? Just as Megan Smith said about the government, in the startup ecosystem, it's what we we, collectively, create. 

What's the point of changing the world if we don't change it into something better? 

Stand Your Ground
The reality is, it's a tough world out there sometimes. Some bad apples do lie, cheat, and even embezzle money.  It's absolutely critical to fight tooth and nail to defend yourself and your startup. If you're about to be run over, you have to fierce and unrelenting in defending yourself. Whether in the courts or the court of public opinion, if things escalate, don't be shy about defending yourself.

Make it a habit of being assertive -- albeit not overly aggressive. Don't let people take advantage of you on big things or little things. 

But that doesn't mean in the day to day course of business you should be an asshole.  Fight battles fiercely when needed -- but day-to-daydon't be afraid to be a nice guy. Don't be an asshole; treat others well. You'll build an army of friends and goodwill amongst the broader public, whom you can rally when the going gets tough. 

But if you treat people poorly -- business partners, vendors, investors or executives, employees and contractors -- then in the long term you'll poison your personal & professional brand and be left with undesirable partners who will try to take advantage of you as you've taken advantage of them.

VCs Aren't Always Your Friend
For a young founder, it can be tempting to take the first investment offer that comes your way. But be careful. There are a lot of truly "founder-friendly" investors out there -- but there are also sharks who will eat you alive, and the merely clueless whose lack of common sense will create havoc. Ask around. Don't just talk to references provided or rely on news coverage -- dig deeper for people who can tell you what a potential investor is really like.

If your sixth sense tells you something's wrong, trust it. No matter how desperate you are for money, hold off. You'll thank me later.  Or maybe you won't because you'll never know what disaster you avoided by running the other way. 

"Be the Change You Wish to See in the World"
We're at an inflection point in the growth of the startup world. Will we build companies on shaky foundations built by "assholes", and risking the entire tech community's goodwill allure held by the broader public? Or will we built the truly great companies of tomorrow on strong foundations, with loyal employees, customers, and business partners who truly believe in a startup's mission to change the world for the better?

It's up to us. Whether you're an entrepreneur, investor, mentor, or employee, do your part to change the world -- starting with the startup world -- for the better, not the worse.

When you're looking to disrupt the status quo with your startup, don't disrupt the Golden Rule.

Don't be evil.