Founders & Ethics

Ethics seems to be a frequent topic in the news these days. From social networks spreading disinformation to politicians’ blatant hypocrisy, individuals and institutions are demonstrating a clear lack of principles. I’ve tried hard to think about what I would do if placed in such a situation of significant power and influence. Founders of growing, early-stage companies are similarly positioned in their ability to impact. Whether you’re a team of 5 people with 50 customers or a team of 50 with 5 million users, your decisions and actions can carry important ramifications.

Building a company is hard. Founders deal with a number of critical choices that will dictate the business trajectory and ultimately, its survival. It’s overwhelming. Your moral principles are baked into many of these decisions and many of the outcomes affect your company, employees and customers. When faced with tough choices, having prior experience or a framework for making those decisions compartmentalizes each path. Not everyone will have relevant experience at each crossroad, but we can all rely on the benefit of frameworks to inform how to best process the choices and evaluate potential outcomes.

I recently took an online ethics course entitled: “Tech Ethics: Avoiding Unintended Consequences”. The instructor, Raina Kumra, discusses different tools to evaluate difficult decisions when building software products, particularly focused on ethical dilemmas. It’s not just social apps that capture user data (sometimes in an unauthorized fashion) that need to be aware of unethical practices. At Rallybound, we were building a SaaS payments platform for nonprofits. We had an obligation to our clients and their donors to be good stewards of their data. We thought a lot about security, compliance and good data storage practices. From understanding PCI to data breaches, we tried to take security seriously from the outset to ensure we could deliver on behalf of our customers. There are a ton of ethical questions founders should consider. Raina’s course outlines some of the possible “risk zones” individuals building software need to navigate.

Portion of checklist provided by Tech Ethics online course

I encourage all founders, product managers and developers to think about the products they’re building and the potential for inadvertent consequences that could arise. You’ll never have all of your bases covered, but if you have some preparation around the thought process, framework of tools, you’ll be much better prepared to navigate these important ethical decisions.