Does a lean start-up mean lean ethics, too?

lean start-up

By Kiki Schirr, {grow} Contributing Columnist

My parents are both marketing professors, which could easily be its own post, but long story short, it means that I was raised thinking about marketing concepts early on. They both find their most challenging topic to be “Ethics,” as this doesn’t seem to come naturally to their students.

I overhear them sometimes, incredulously comparing notes.

“He said, ‘Of course fire her, she has cancer! How much can she work?’” Dad shook his head.

“My students suggested employing the mentally handicapped because you can pay them under minimum wage.” Mom whispered.

And those aren’t even the most difficult questions, the ones that appear in advertising and marketing:

The field of marketing is brimming with grey areas even in large companies with HR departments and active legal advisors. In the lean start-up culture (and I’m in the middle of it), I would argue that unethical behavior is actively encouraged. Here are a few reasons why.

Is it ethical to sell a product that doesn’t exist?

“But it’s not hurting anyone!”

That’s the excuse I usually hear when people run the Lean Startup Landing Page Test. If you’re not familiar with this, the Landing Page Test is where a fledgling company builds a seemingly-functional site, to see if people will click the “buy” button on their non-existent product.

“It’s not hurting anyone,” should probably be a giant red flag alone. However, this test actually does have the potential to hurt people if the fledgling company chooses to store personal information about the potential customers, such as name, email address, and even credit card number.

And even if they don’t store personal information, advertising a solution that doesn’t exist raises false hopes. It can be as silly as the crushing disappointment we all felt when the hoverboard wasn’t real — or as potentially harmful as a false cure to a deadly disease. Either way, the Landing Page Test is an ethically grey area.

Is it ethical to seed new communities with false user-generated content?

Every time I hear about the classic Catch-22 of online communities — it’ll have cool content once people use it, but people won’t use it until it has cool content — people bring up Reddit.

As Alexis Ohanian states in (the perhaps aptly-titled) Without Their PermissionReddit’s founders initially seeded their site with as much content as they could … from false accounts!

While on a forum such as Reddit this behavior seems harmless, it undoubtedly sets a precedent for less-harmless planted user-generated content or fake accounts. Imagine if Yelp had begun by writing fake reviews, for example.

The worst infraction that I’ve heard of is Ashley Madison.The 2015 hack of the adultery-dating site revealed that well over 99 percent of the female accounts on Ashley were fake. (There is some karma there, perhaps, but it’s still unethical to cheat cheaters.)

Is it ethical if your product triggers obsessive behavior?

One growing concern of mine, especially after reading the amazing book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, is of the obsession with getting your customer obsessed.

Nir Eyal’s book does cover the ethics of using his tactics to creative repetitive behavioral patterns, but I really think a lot of startups are skipping that chapter.

“This product will measure your body to the micro-milimeter to track any daily weight gain!” cried one startup I know, much to my horror.

“I want our game to be addictive!” is another rallying cry. In fact, this is an important factor in game ratings. The American Medical Association states there is increasing evidence that people of all ages, especially teens and pre-teens, are facing very real, sometimes severe consequences associated with compulsive use of video and computer games.

Think about what you’re doing. And think hard.

Do Start-ups Need Institutional Review Boards?

After the infamous Tuskegee, Milgram, and the Stanford Prison Experiments, it became clear to the United States that there needed to be a system of ethics dealing with experiments on human subjects. For this reason, they drew up laws that led to the establishment of collegiate Institutional Review Boards. They’re generally a giant pain in the butt, but they often point out ethical concerns that you might not have realized, even in my limited experiences with them.

So I would argue that because your target customer is a human, and that most marketing is a series of experiments designed to influence behavior, you might need a review board.

It would seem to me, then, that maybe having some sort of internal process in place to take a step back and ask, “Should we really be doing this?” or “Is it possible that we could cause someone harm?” is not a bad idea.

Let’s own up to it people — startups influence human behaviors. We have a moral debt to our users, to protect them, to shelter them, and most of all, to never harm them. Let’s be the best companies we can be.


Kiki Schirr is a cofounder of the fitness app Fittr, and also does the company’s marketing. She is the author of the The Product Hunt Manual and Tech Doodles. You can find her on Twitter, or at her brand-new (please don’t judge) website.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Artotem

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