The integrity of a business is the first thing I look at. I'm not alone with that — it's becoming increasingly important. In fact, research shows that 84% of consumers are willing to make personal sacrifices to purchase from ethical brands.
But I've noticed that the topic of ethics is often sequestered to the realm of big biz, with the exception of privacy issues which have recently gone mainstream. And I think it's crucial for us to have the conversation at every level, all the way down to the solopreneur and even the future entrepreneur. Big companies aren't changing. They're just [name a cause]-washing to help their bottom lines. But we can help where they fail. After all, it's a heck of a lot easier to avoid those slippery slopes when ethical practices are baked in from the get-go.
So I've been really digging into the topic lately, and I figured I'd save you all from corporate blowhards waxing poetic about the importance of this ethics document, that code of conduct, and any number of other ways to waste your time while patting yourself on the back.
Here's what I've found so far in relation to indie hackers, makers, startups, small businesses, and the rest of us. It barely scratches the surface, but I hope it helps.
So first off, what are we talking about here - how are we defining moral integrity? In short, it means consistently sticking to your principles, even when it's hard.
The word "integrity" itself basically means "whole". Like an integer in math is a whole number (rather than a fraction), integrity refers to something that is sound and complete. When a building has integrity, its foundation is sturdy, it has no weak spots and for this reason it is strong in the face of elemental stress.
In an individual, integrity means acting from a similar place of embodied wholeness. It means taking your principles and values with you, even into that all-important client meeting. It means maintaining your sense of wholeness and "uprightness" when things take unexpected turns.
One thing to note before I continue: In my mind, integrity is not one-size-fits-all. What is out of integrity for me is not necessarily going to be out of integrity for you. Sure, there are a few universal (or at least near-universal) values. But others are subjective, and integrity is about staying within our own values — not someone else's.
Here are a few steps that can help any early-stage company get started on the right foot.
Here are some specific areas that you may want to keep an eye on.
Even companies without physical products need to consider their footprints.
Your footprint includes that of your suppliers, by the way, but more on that later. It also includes your office, your tech stack, and other processes
As far as your office, it's pretty straight forward. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Check out the sourcing on everything you buy. Consider using renewable energy like solar. Go paperless or use recycled paper. Use eco-friendly cleaning products. Use TP made from recycled paper. Munch on snacks that are good for you and the planet — support organic/sustainable/regenerative agriculture. Watch your energy usage by turning off your electronics and even unplugging them (or turning of the power strip), as idle electronics are a huge energy drain. Rely on natural light instead of turning on electronic lights whenever possible.
The list goes on, but the point is to be conscious of your impact, and take responsibility for it.
Make it a priority to work with people from different backgrounds, whether you're hiring or partnering up. Be inclusive in your marketing content. Use inclusive language in your day-to-day and in your content. Include pronouns in your email signatures. Check in with teammates and ask how you can do better. Get to know everyone on the team and learn what feels good for them and what doesn't. Hold each other accountable.
Make sure your product is reasonably accessible to all. Account for purchasing power parity in your pricing to make sure your price point is appropriate for different countries. You can also offer scholarships and the like.
Marketing gets a bad wrap. Why? Because so many companies use it in an unethical way. In my view, the key to marketing is simple: Have respect for your customers — for their time, for their attention, for their energy. And make it about giving, not taking.
Indie hackers like @markosaric of Plausible Analytics have shown that you don't need shady marketing practices to grow. Check out his article on growing 1000% in 6 months while staying in his integrity. According to the article, they don't take demographic information or do any remarketing with spy pixels from Facebook or Google. In fact, they don't do any paid advertising at all. They don't buy links, track clicks, or throw intrusive popups or CTAs. They don't pay for recommendations or otherwise manipulate, trick, or addict people. And the list goes on.
This stuff isn't inherently bad, but it's well worth considering whether or not you feel good about it before you do it, because none of it is a necessity. You can grow without it. If you choose to do any of it, just be upfront. Ask for permission to track a user's clicks, for example.
A few other considerations that I'll add:
Privacy is top-of-mind for businesses and consumers alike right now. I am in no way an expert, but here's what I've gleaned from the articles I've read.
Be transparent with customers around your data collection and allow them to choose what they want to share with you. Never sell their data. Make sure their data is secure — this is a whole thing that I'll leave for more technical minds. Cleanse and remove unwanted customer data. If you don't have a very good reason (and consent) for having it, get rid of it. And back up your data.
I'm always asking about the materials used to make a thing — nine times out of ten, the company doesn't have a clue where their products really come from, and I buy elsewhere.
As consumers and entrepreneurs, we have a responsibility to vote with our dollars. If you buy products created with unethical practices, they'll makee more products using unethical practices. That's how capitalism works.
For SaaS companies and the like, this may not seem applicable, but it is. You are undoubtedly working with companies, even if it's just for hosting.
Do your due diligence. Make sure that they are being ethical (so that you can be too).
Giving does not just mean money. You can give your time, your knowledge, your product, you name it. But one great option is to donate a portion of your revenue to a cause that you feel passionate about (and preferably relates to your offering in some way). You can find some good options here with organizations like CharityWatch.
There are a lot of causes out there, all of which are important, but resources are limited. And in truth, it's generally best to champion one cause anyway, as you can have a bigger impact with it and you may also become known for that cause.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when prioritizing:
As your company grows, you're likely to run into ethical issues. Even with the best of intentions, things can take an unexpected turn — particularly when you take your eye off the prize (the prize being your integrity, not profit). Be on the lookout for these signs from Harvard Business Review:
But ultimately, it shouldn't be rocket science, as long as you keep your eyes open. At least for small businesses, that is.
In my opinion, if you're an indie hacker, you're already doing so many things right. Small businesses are exactly what we need. They're good for founders, employees, customers, and the world in general.
While it's true that big businesses are held accountable by stricter regulations, that they have a lot of eyes on them, and that they may contend with whistleblowers, they also have expensive lawyers helping them to find loopholes and workarounds.
Small businesses (especially local) are held accountable by their own teams and their communities. Since it's small, the founder has no plausible deniability, so the buck stops with them. And that's manageable because they're also able to be really present in the everyday actions of the business. The barrier between customers and founders is smaller, so customers are less likely to be treated as numbers. Purpose and values remain closer to the heart. There are fewer stakeholders demanding profit at all costs.
The list of ethical benefits goes on, but the point is that small businesses hold many of the answers to unethical practices. When a business is small, the moral integrity of the founder can steer the ship. When it crosses a certain threshold, the business begins to steer the founder. And the world suffers.
Just a final thought here. I think it might be time to redefine "success". I get that profit is a big part of it, particularly for founders, and that'll continue to be the case. But what about impact? Perhaps redefining success on a personal level will subtly change the way each of us does business.
This is a huge topic and I've barely scratched the surface. I'd love to hear what you'd add.