Start-Up Ethics Starts with Values

Jenn Sydeski
5 min readDec 9, 2019


That first step is a doozy

Strategies and models for building an ethical framework rely the business having an established sense of its values to serve as scaffolding, but as an early start-up, my company didn’t have a bank account or a filing cabinet yet, let alone something so intangible. For real- we were still at a place where we might enormously change products, industries, and team before any goods or services actually reach folks.

Pinning down values to check ethics against seemed a little ambiguous, at this point, but embracing the chaos and leaning into the program, I asked my team to submit values for us to discuss.

Important Learning #1:
Not Everyone Wants to Come Play

Early start-up teams might be a dedicated team of equal cofounders, a solo founder, or anything in-between.

For us, I am a core founder and CEO, but we also have fractional technologists of varying commitments building stuff towards a prototype. I assumed (that always works out well) that these are folks who would want to have a say in the bigger picture of what they are building towards- the dent we are going to make in the universe- the particular way in which our particular gadget was going to save the world, etc etc, but my request for suggested values fell fairly flat. Start-up founders as ceo’s who are driving the creation of something that doesn’t exist yet have to be able put themselves in a headspace where the big hard thing we are doing is this important and meaningful, but that isn’t true for everyone. In fact, it may be beneficial to have the grounding that I found in the friends I am working with. Anyway, speaking with the team about their individual interests in crafting our value list and ethics program, I got set straight — Realistically, if someone is just doing the thing for the technical challenge and because they believe in your ability to make it something bigger eventually, they may not want to engage in building culture and directing ethics of the overall business, themselves. So, I decided to respect their focus, appreciate their trust in me, and move forward more or less on my own.

Important Learning #2:
Keep Adding and Subtracting Until You Actually Like The List

So staring at a blank sheet of paper, I really struggled to imagine what I could include without excluding too much. I wrote a list over 30 lines long after listing some personal values, adding the 4 sourced from a team member, and — no joke — googling “company values” and throwing in anything that sounded nice. Some painfully horrid picture of doing anything in an organization with a list that big motivated me to pick just two. Some equally painful and horrid picture of some future business demonstrably lacking in all the other values then motivated reconsideration all over. So I added back about 20.

You get the picture. There was a lot of back and forth- even with just myself. Over nearly 2 months. (if you are doing this with your team, perhaps make this a long-ish term project) And after much diving down rabbit holes of what each candidate value could mean for us, I ended up with 16 that I couldn’t feel good about excluding.

I posted it to the team for conversation and everyone was cool with what we had for the time being, and so, we had our Minimum Viable Product version of our Company Values.

Important Learning #3:
Incentives Drive Behaviors that Match Values

At a previous seminar we’d attended, the speaker talked about how values in a company are often just an ideal and nothing actually happening in the company speaks to them. He said that identifying behaviors that demonstrated those values and then tangibly rewarding those behaviors is how values are actually built into culture.

So I broke out for each (yes, all 16 values) what behaviors we could engage in to exemplify those values. And it was a total freakin mess.

Clearly, I needed another way of thinking about these, because there were so many different ways to be courageous- is this courage as a company in the market to do something risky? courage as an employee in the office to speak up? courage as a leader to make decisions that meet our whole gamut of values when external forces will challenge that?

Important Learning #4:
Value-Driven Behaviors Vary by Context

So. We have 16 values, and for each, I broke out 4 contexts:

(1) Customers
(2) Owners/Investors
(3) Industry (Peers, Competitors, Suppliers, Partners)
(4) Employees

For each, I then assigned a Value in Context, thinking about what that value looks like for each context.
From there, I attached Value Behaviors to meet each Value in Context.
From there, I attached Organizational Supports to meet each Value Behavior.

This is what that looks like in action.

Building this out in to a format that we can fill meant we had a tool to begin building our Ethics Framework.

In case you’d like to look at or use it, here ya go:
Ethics Infrastructure Tool 1 - Values

Important Learning #5:
Value-Driven Behaviors Can Have Branding Value

Looking more in-depth, at the organizational support activities, we all saw that some of these were generally done by others and some were really something special that, from a business and branding perspective, we’d really like to share to our potential customers. It took another founder with another awesome company to point out a simple and clear way of labeling these to share out, and now we also assign these designations in our process.

(1) Minimally Required for Legal Compliance
(2) Standard Best Practice for Our Industry
(3) Above and Beyond for Our Customers

This is part of a Start-Up Tech Ethics series .

~Links: 1~2~3~4~5~

Want to join a small group of folks knee-deep in tech ethics to chat, share resources, and challenge each other?
Apply here.



Jenn Sydeski

CEO of Connect Wolf, professor, tinkerer, operations nerd, recovering scientist, and mama.