Where does Ethics Belong in a Technology Start-Up?

Is it possible that we actually have to do this in the beginning to get it right?

As a tech start-up founder (the middle-aged mom in Pittsburgh kind), I was thinking about “not being jerks” from day one, but formalizing to some structured “business ethics” plan was an absurd thought given the realities of building an early stage start-up with little to no resources.

Do founders need to build ethics into their companies from the start?

Somehow, we (my company) scored some hack-y “not actually in the accelerator” spot in a fancy accelerator, and they let us do nearly all the things. On day one (ish?) they had us in this great kumbaya circle with folks interested in socially meaningful innovation from the local smart-people school to talk about an optional Ethics-for-start-ups program they were piloting, and I’m a joiner, so here we are.

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. But not much.
The director of the accelerator talked about how the new investor meeting hotness was ethics. Suddenly, on the backs of the business consequences of so many ethical failures from Uber to Theranos, investors are evidently looking to de-risk a start-up’s ethical liability. Fair.

If you don’t know- a start-up is a business designed from the get-go for rapid growth to be a very large business very quickly, so this means that before you have the revenue to invest in things like technology, legal, HR, and accounting services, you have to find a way to put that together, yourself. At the same time you are doing customer research to iterate towards a better product and business model, building the thing, becoming a regulatory expert, solidifying a valid revenue strategy and corresponding marketing strategy, and all the while you are talking to people and organizations who might invest in the thing you’ve almost built.

It’s entirely impossible.

And amazing.

If you like getting punched in the metaphorical face a lot for the chance at doing something big.

Anyway, the idea of throwing something like business ethics into the mix at this stage seemed ridiculous because the business would change so much over time and also the bandwidth/focus issue. But I’m a little ridiculous?

And just maybe it could give us something that the others out there haven’t figured out yet?
And we want to be the good guys, so this program would grant us permission to create the space in our progress to at least think about it.

So I sat there in our kumbaya circle shaking off a picture of my team skipping daintily through meadows of ethics unraveling garlands of culture and philosophy and the overlapping morals of us each as individuals, and I, along with others in our batch, signed up to begin this, newly essential, part of building a successful business.

The response from outside folks to hearing we did this has been pretty big. My company happens to be in a “high ethical liability” space, so potential customers, investors, partners, advisers, new team members, and just folks on the street have been excited and relieved to hear that we have an eye to the potential risks in our business beyond the legal minimum.

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

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

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