A post by Brock Benefiel. Brock is a Digital Marketing Consultant, Tech Writer, and Author of the upcoming book Flyover Startups.
Recent high-profile tech controversies have put ethics under the microscope. What role do investors play in a company’s values and how do you fill your boardroom with people on your side?
As a founder, you own the values of your business. You may not own all the shares of the company but the ethics and guidelines that govern your startup will always be your responsibility. You’ve got to protect what you’ve created so it’s necessary to do what you can to assert your control.
This can cause some real headaches if you’re forced to grapple ethical dilemmas with difficult investors. Founders may find themselves with financial backers that are eager to buy-in to a company for its products or services but later seem easy to dismiss your values. That’s a problem.
A founder serves as the ultimate arbiter between the needs of the customers, employees, executive team and the board. The moral framework they construct for guiding their business is often a valuable structure for producing the best possible company to serve everyone’s needs. On the hand, if they are tempted to make unreasonable short-term ethical concessions for a quick surge that sacrifice a long-term vision for growth, everyone is vulnerable to lose in the end.
There is real pressure on founders to be unethical
“Startups are desperate,” Sean Ellis, CEO of collaboration software startup GrowthHackers, told Fortune. “[Mature] companies aren’t going to die if they don’t figure out how to accelerate growth. Most startups will die, and when you’re desperate, you’ll do stupid things.”
There’s no shortage of news (see Theranos, Zenefits, Hampton Creek) of young companies fudging numbers, falsifying product details and generally doing stupid things. Reputations have been wrecked, businesses cratered and the opportunity to accomplish great change have been squandered by these shortsighted snafus.
But any venture requires even honest tech founders to be irrationally ambitious. Getting investors to dole out money now requires convincing them to buy into a future founders can never be sure will ever exist. Then those checks cash and the pressure to show growth quickly and turn that vision into something tangible soon intensifies. But real, sustainable growth is hard and cutting corners can be easy and attractive – especially when the stakes are high.
If you’re a founder that lacks a rigid moral framework for how you conduct business, you’re likely to choose the initial path of least resistance that gets your startup moving quickly. It’s also the course that can later lead you to hitting the wall and going down in flames.
Venture capital dollars don’t optimize for ethics either
VCs face pressure too. They need at least one massive hit out of their profile and have less time for your business and if you’re unlikely to earn it for them. Founders often expect their investors to also serve as mentors. But if your backers are picking up a pen, it’s to write a check not draft your company’s value statement. This quote from Fred Destin nails the limits of venture capital as a moral authority for your startup:
“Venture capital as a funding product is not immoral as much as it is amoral — it rushes in to leverage any opportunity that arises,” Destin wrote recently in Medium. “The individual themselves are mostly (in my experience) of high integrity and have a clear moral compass, but I don’t think many venture partnerships stop to think : “why are we funding this team and can we embrace the mission of this company.”
Let’s face it: the focus of VCs is fetching a 10x return on their investment. Anything else is a bonus for founders.
Set expectations early
But investors should be asking the “why” questions of your business. It’s remarkably short-sighted to sign a term-sheet and shell funds into a company without a clear understanding of what the company values. You can’t control what they choose to ignore. But you do command their attention in pitch meetings and you can emphasize from the jump how your ethics will guide your business. “You need to be upfront about your values,” Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures said about founders. “You need to implement your values in your system.”
State it explicitly and explain to investors exactly what they are signing on to beyond the term sheet. Then, if problems arise later, you’ve already set the precedent and make the investors choose to be the problem. The burden will be on them to explain to you and the rest of the board why they’ve done it.
You offer a lot upfront – so ask a lot upfront
Pitching investors is a trust exercise all of its own. You’re almost always sharing proprietary information in an investment deck and almost never securing a NDA to prevent potential VC vultures from flying away with your secrets. If you’re willing to easily hand over precious data points and secret product information, you’ve earned the right to demand investors take your code of ethics seriously.
Investors have expectations of you too
Younger CEOs and first-time founders are especially vulnerable to an extra bit of skittishness to appear disruptive or cause unnecessary board drama. You’re entering a boardroom with investors that have likely worked with multiple founders and you might even outnumbered by VCs in the room. Address concerns that may not immediately impact growth in front of a group focused on earning a return can be awkward.
But it’s good and fair to establish early that you have expectations of your investors, especially when they’ll certainly have expectations of you.
Ask investors for their code of ethics
Same as founders, good VCs consider the culture they want to create within their firm and consider how it guides their decision to invest. Some have even argued for a kind of Hippocratic Oath for VCs to take. An investor who hasn’t already spent time weighing moral decisions and etching out an ethical framework for acceptable and unacceptable practices will be surprised when challenged by founders down the road. Same as founders, it’ll be hard to expect a move toward the moral decision over the quick growth compromise.
Ask your investors upfront for their guidelines. In absence of something written, ask them direct questions about why they pick the startups they do and what they value. They might not be prepared to deliver long, well-considered answers. But even that can reveal a lot.
So you’ve vetted investors well and delivered your point-of-view upfront, but yet problems still arise. What do you do?
Keep the board behind you
VCs are human too and when the pressure is on, can be vulnerable to advocate for unethical shortcuts. You’ll have to address it with the individual causing the problem immediately – part of good investor communication is telling VCs when they are wrong. If you reach an impasse with the troublesome investor, you’ve got a problem that needs to be solved with the entire board involved. If you feel your company is about to behave unethically, it’s time to rally the other investors (and the votes) behind you and pressure the problematic VC to back down. Do it out in the open in board meetings or do it behind closed doors. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re airing the issues out in front of everyone or pressing VCs for loyalty pledges in one-on-ones. Investors are there to have your back and if they don’t back you on these conflicts, they are skirting their duty.
Implicit pressure can be unethical
An investor might act unethically by asking you to engage in a task or behavior that you deem unethical. But your board can also be guilty of implicit abuse of your code of conduct. You can’t acquire new customers, boost revenue growth or makeover your product offering at the expense of your company guidelines. You don’t want to deploy shady tactics to show artificial sales spikes or to fudge timelines of when enterprise features will be implemented just to win now.
However, if you don’t have a group of investors that respects the limitations of your current growth or brings sound solutions to the table that empower you to step beyond your boundaries, you have a group of people who unnecessarily pressuring the person in charge. That might not be as sinister as suggesting immoral actions, but it can lead a founder down the wrong path all the same. You don’t want these people as your advisors.
So, to return to the question asked up top, do you need investors to match your values? Yes – at least as it relates to the core tenants of your business. It’s not that complicated. Keep it clear early what you value and why it matters. And if it gets complicated, keep it simple with your current investors (at least the ones that will get it) to ensure everyone stays on the same page.