Ethical Startup Playbook 🌱⚖

–TABLE OF CONTENTS–

[1] Why does this Matter?
[2] What is Ethics?
[3] Commentary, reflection questions, and resources on the Medium dimension of technology startup development
[4] “ “ on Personal
[5]
“ “ on Product
[6] “ “ on Organization
[7]
Putting into Practice

Mark Henson: Lost Horizon. Last fall, researchers at the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity concluded: “ The most significant and transformative human rights project is one that has received little attention within the human rights domain: challenging the corporation itself and re-imagining our economic enterprises.” I used to ignore these critiques. Then I wanted to burn the system down. Now I have deep appreciation for the paradoxes we get to wrestle with in this time between worlds.

[1] Why Another Playbook? 📚

Every week, another major scandal: Facebook, Ozy, Barstool, and endless stories we don’t hear about because of social pressure and disparagement agreements. The Startup” has become one of the world’s most influential institutions, producing an outsize impact on the lives of its stakeholders. But its growth-at-all-costs mindset is causing pain and suffering to users (Instagram), workers (Amazon), communities (AirBnB) and the biosphere (Bitcoin). Would different mindsets and culture yield different results?

Inspired by Donella Meadows’ 12 Leverage Points to Intervene in a System, The Center for Humane Technology developed a simplified framework for the tech industry. When I think of shifting how we approach building startups, I look at the Culture & Paradigm side of the scale, which is the highest leverage point and most difficult to shift, occurring when there is widespread change in our core beliefs, values, behaviors, and operating norms.

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”
Margaret Wheatley

[2] What Is Ethics, Actually? ⚖️

Ethics is one of those words that means different things (or no thing) to different people. It’s often engaged superfluously and shallowly, if at all. Ethics does not have the sexiest reputation. It is at most a minor focus in professional education systems.

  • Meta-Ethics — study of the meaning and nature of ethics. // What is goodness?
  • Normative Ethics — (aka moral theory) study of ethical action, and what makes actions right or wrong. Includes virtue ethics like Deontology, Stoicism and Hedonism, Consequentialism and Utilitarianism, Judaism and Original Instructions. // What should I do?
  • Applied Ethics — application to real-world situations. Bioethics, business ethnics, technology ethics. // How do we fulfill our obligations?

What makes an effective choice?

The punchline: “Love is that which enables choice.” Forrest drills down deeper into precise meaning of these key words and the relationship between them.

What principles might empower more effective choices for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs?

Heart and Mind

Applying Ethics to Startups

What I want is a playbook for this moment, translated into accessible language that I can peg my process to, walk founders and teams through, shout from SoMa rooftops. A thorough, relevant, and practical principles of startup ethics available for current and aspiring leaders to study and apply, now. Courses, tool kits, shared language. That has yet to cross my desk (please share if you’ve come across or are working on something like it!). The existing playbooks seem silo’d across the different chapters that I dive into below. What would such a comprehensive method and practice look like? Is it even possible today with so many components of startup culture antithetical to ethics?

At all times there exists an invitation for each of us to make more effective choices in all domains of all worlds we are part of.

I’m also tickled by the branding challenge. How might ethics be rebranded to communicate its hyper-relevance in this historical moment? To attract the authentic interest of the next generation? What kind of startups might those 10 million kids build if the playbook involved taking digital detoxes to connect with their heart and soul, sense of purpose, the big questions echoing through time, emerging economic models, re-enchantment of nature, and healthier interpersonal connection? What if the narrative shifted from how to not fuck up big time to how to make more awesome choices for all involved?

  • Selecting a Medium
  • Creating a Lifestyle
  • Developing a Product/Service
  • Building an Organization

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.” — David Graeber

Raphael, “School of Athens” (detail of Plato and Aristotle), 1509–1511. Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican.

[3] MEDIUM: The Medium Is The Message 🎨

The conventional startup playbook is a monoculture of Delaware C Corp entity, venture capital financing, dual-class stock structure, and so on. It’s one framework that engenders a particular type of culture, lifestyles, needs and accountabilities. Some might say a message to “grow at all costs” and “consolidate ownership and control to few” and “cut ethical corners to get the job done.” A system that often celebrates ineffective choices. That works for shareholders (owners), but doesn’t always work well for all stakeholders (those impacted by the company’s decisions).

How To Start A Co-Op. Taking the road less traveled isn’t easy. But that’s the invitation.

Ownership

Are there ownership structures that more equitably acknowledge the contributions of all those working on the mission? The core function of a cooperative (a long standing alternative to the corporation, that is recently growing in popularity) is to democratize ownership and control. It’s a collectively owned enterprise that can serve the interests of all stakeholders, from investors to workers to customers. Start.coop is the YC of co-ops, now offering a free Lean Co-Op intro course.

Capital

Whenever you are thinking about taking outside investment, it’s important to consider the intention behind it. What return targets are you signing up to deliver on? How might this capital constrain or support ethical choices? Where is the capital coming from upstream? How do the values of GPs/LPs align with yours? In choosing a boss for yourself and your team, who do you want to labor and make money for?

By Rob Tashima (Village Capital), with Astrid Scholz (Zebras Unite)

Governance

Hierarchy is dead. Long live hierarchy! Who gets to make choices about what? Too many organizations and communities adopt default governance practices that rely on the unchecked authority of founders. Governance can be a highly charged matter. The answer may be something that integrates the strengths and accounts for the weaknesses of both hierarchical organizations and non-hierarchical organizations, to form more organic systems of collective decision making.

There is no singular ethical or right way to start a business. There are only degrees of effectiveness relative to your unique context.

Reflection Questions

  • Medium— Every idea is not a C Corp. What are the different forms/mediums your idea could be expressed through? Are you sure it’s startup? Perhaps it isn’t a technology business, but a nonprofit, an essay, a direct action, a policy template, a one time IRL experiment, just a joyful dream, or nothing at all. Consider the impact of Banksy’s art or Greta’s voice. How do your life experiences and motivations bias you towards the medium you currently envision? What are the tradeoffs?
  • Lack Creates Longing— How have you felt impacted by the current paradigm of startup culture? What alternatives exist for those pain points? Who in your network might be able to support you in exploring your options?
  • Life Alignment— Do the ownership, capital, and governance structures you have or desire support or inhibit the lifestyle you want for yourself and employees? Does starting a business in general support or inhibit it? Are you sure you want to be a founder, or are you more of an artist, activist, or a weird-trepreneur? If founder, are you more of a swing-for-the-fences or get-on-base kind of person?
Android Jones: Chrysalis

[4] PERSONAL: Who Do You Need & Want to Become? 🐣

And then there’s YOU! Before there was an idea, there was you, the beautiful and messy human filled with innocent hopes and noble dreams, crippling fears and unconscious biases, hungry ghosts and unprocessed trauma. You could not have possibly earned a PhD in systems change, become an expert in facilitating nuanced conversations about race, and meditated for 10,000 hours; all while supporting yourself financially. You are doing the best you can with what you got. We all talked about it and we think you are doing a great job 😹

“Ineffective actions and choices result from a lack of clarity between the soul and the mind. To have a lack of clarity is to have a lack of knowing and of understanding; it is an absence of wisdom.” — Forrest Landry

Three relevant sub-dimensions here: Continuing Education, Personal Growth, and Lifestyle.

Continuing Education

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are all lifelong learners, constantly taking in information, making meaning of it, and applying it. I believe that for each of us there exists a gap between where we are now, and where we need to be in order to create and live more effectively. Why not identify that gap and take closing it seriously (any playfully)? And then coordinate studies and practices to support those long-term learning goals. Especially around alternative approaches to entrepreneurship.

“When social systems are in periods of rapid transformation, the role of schools becomes contradictory. They teach knowledge that is no longer relevant, socialize people into roles that no longer exist, and provide mindsets needed to continue ways of life that are disappearing.”–Zak Stein

What and how should the next generation of founders learn? is one of the most important meta-questions I can think of. It’s possible that much of what we learned to date is irrelevant, ineffective, and will need to be relearned. Here’s a table of questions and topics that feel relevant to the founder journey, and may be taught in tomorrow’s business school:

One way to reveal what may be on your Learning Journey is to list out each of the key topics (third column) and check off which ones you feel deficient in or curious about. Think about who in your network might be able to support you in that. When recruiting, consider experience in these domains to be key value adds.

Personal Growth

Hand in hand with lifelong learning is personal growth. There’s a whole industry of executive coaching and professional development programs of various shapes and sizes, operating at the very limits of what the market will bear in terms of quality and ethics. Business schools are starting to toss in some mindfulness and emotional intelligence, accelerators pay lip service to the importance of mental health, and some “conscious” investors are boasting coaching support as their secret sauce.

Ethical entrepreneurship inevitably becomes a spiritual practice, with lifestyle, product and org acting as mirrors to reveal that which is invisible and out of alignment inside oneself. The dojo is open for practice Monday through Friday.

9 out of 10 startups fail. Might as well learn something along the way. Which practices feel most interesting to you? Source: The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Lifestyle

Every morning you wake up and allocate your finite life force to a set of activities and relationships, based on obligations, needs, curiosities and abilities. There are many ways to live. Of all creative possibilities available in this reality, how would you like to spend your day?

You do not need to start a company. You are not your job, your achievements, your net worth. You are enough. You don’t have to do anything.

I appreciate the Wheel of Life as a reflection tool for getting a quick snapshot of the health of your life, and feeling into next steps in each domain. For a much deeper, embodied, and culturally relevant version of this exercise, check out friend and teacher Sara Wolcott’s Circular Time exercise. What’s out of balance in your life?

Reflection Questions

  • Learning— Who are you? What are your ethics? See Forrest’s Questions of Self Reflection. What’s in your Learning Journey? In what ways are you prepared to steward an idea and a team around it? In what was are you not prepared? Why shouldn’t you start a company? What needs cleaning up in your life? What learnings from past projects do you want to keep in mind as you begin this new one? Are there patterns of behavior you would like to avoid? If you could download skills like Neo in the Matrix, which three would you learn today?
  • Purpose— How do you think about purpose? What do you think your purpose is now? How has that evolved over time? Are you sure that’s your purpose, or are you grabbing onto something because of pressure to find one? How does your startup idea relate to your Ikigai? How does it relate to your positioning in the web of life? Is now the right time? What is really driving you? Where are your goals the result of compensations to old wounds? What are your ultimate desires? How can you best serve your community in these destabalizing times?
  • Lifestyle— Describe your “perfect day” 5 years from now. Can you live that way today? What do you need in order to? What are you willing to give up in order to get there? What are you not willing to give up? How will starting a business support or constrain your goals? See Lifestyle Design — Designing Your Life.
Android Jones: Manifest Alpha

[5] PRODUCT: Stewarding Something Beautiful🌱

I’ll keep this one shorter — product is the dimension that has received the most ethics-related spotlight in recent years, as the real and potential harms of technology have been revealed across AI, social media, biotech and more through the likes of the Facebook Files and The Social Dilemma documentary. In the age of exponential tech, consequences show up faster than we can remediate them.

What makes life beautiful? What is worthwhile? What is good? What brings a sense of depth to our existence?

Omidyar Network’s Ethical OS Toolkit and Checklist — a guide to anticipating the future impact of today’s technology. Also check out the Consequence Scanning Toolkit, Ethical Explorer Pack, Agile Threat Modeling, The Tarot Cards of Tech, & Data Ethics Canvas.

What does Life on Earth want the next generation of founders to consider when birthing something new into the world?

Reflection Questions

  • Scale — Imagine your product at the scale of 1 billion people. What are all the things that could go wrong? Is there anything in your solution that makes you uncomfortable? Could your solution be a part of an episode in Black Mirror?
  • Existence — Should your idea exist, period? What arguments would a strong opponent of your solution bring forward? How does your idea connect to any of the UN SDG’s or existential challenges of our time? How will you feel about your grandchildren knowing that in 2022, you decided to pour your energy into this idea?
  • Lineage — What has humankind learned about this idea space throughout history? Who are the wisdom keepers there? What do they know? Who has been impacted in this space in the past, and how? What values are you embedding into this product? How can your product emulate the models, systems, and elements of nature (biomimicry)?
Android Jones: HanaHaus Mural

[6] ORG: Creating Cultures Worthy of the Human Spirit 👷🏽‍♀️

Last but certainly not least is organizational development, perhaps the dimension that startup founders are most deficient in, and lately quite a minefield. How to engage people in a remote-first environment? What is the role of politics in the workplace? How to create a culture awesome enough to weather The Great Resignation? How to build coherence when everybody is popping different color pills? What are organizations there for, and not there for?

The growth edge for organizational leaders is to take into consideration the realization of the ultimate desires of all that are affected by a particular choice.

I thought I was fairly attuned to subtleties of organizational dynamics, but through supporting my friend and teacher Simon Mont’s forthcoming book on the topic, I’m struck by how many considerations go into building just, joyful, and effective organizations. Power. Accountability. Agency. Inclusion. Identity. Process. Belonging. Healing. Emergence. Culture. Facilitation. Conflict. Compensation. Delegation. Change. Dignity. Trust. Toxicity. Patterns. Communication. Authenticity. Systems. Humanization. Dehumanization. Relational dynamics.

Indicators of Wellbeing that JumpScale analyzes in developing a treatment plan.
Josh Bersin: As the pandemic continues and competition for talent heats up, becoming a Healthy Organization is more important than ever. Everyone wins when employees feel healthy, empowered, and recognized.
Inspired by Ken Wilbur’s Integral Theory, Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations posits that as humans have evolved states of consciousness throughout history, they have developed organizational models to coincide. And that what is emerging is the “Teal” organization built on pillars of wholeness, self-management, and evolutionary purpose.

“In organizations, real power and energy is generated through relationships. The patterns of relationships and the capacities to form them are more important than tasks, functions, roles, and positions.”
Margaret Wheatley

Reflection Questions

  • Role — How do you most want to contribute to this vision? Which aspects of the process are most nourishing and interesting to you? Is there another team already working in this zone that you could collaborate with? If you’re not interested in engaging with all these org dev dimensions, maybe a CEO position isn’t for you?
  • Blind Spots — Which aspects of org dev are you hesitant to learn or engage with? Why do you think that is? Where is your success occurring at the expense of others? Where is credit seeking or image management influencing how you are choosing? Where are you acting out of reaction, habit, or unconsciousness? Where / when / how do you allow fear to influence your choices?
Sam Brown: Plaza Blanca Spiral

[7] PRACTICE: Walking The Talk 👠

How to put this exhaustive amount of new material into practice? Slowly and consistently. Like doing yoga or playing guitar, it requires practice, community, and ritual. It’s one thing to know something in your head; another to know it in your body, such that it becomes second nature. One thing to do a team workshop every now and then; another to integrate ethics into the natural rhythms of the organization. The complexity and breadth of considerations most enterprises face today means that to seriously integrate ethics would require making it a consistent organizational focus, rather than a one-off initiative or list of principles posted on a wall.

  • Engage a third party to conduct an ethical review of your product
  • Hold regular meetings to try to anticipate and manage harms that your product or business might cause
  • Hold trainings in ethical risk
  • Tie employee compensation to ethical or social good metrics
  • Have at least one board member (ideally an independent voice) or an advisor with expertise in ethics. Permission and empower them to regularly check in, voice concerns, and hold you accountable.
  • Build a team (and/or cap table) > 50% women, POC, or LGBTQ+
Operationalizing Responsible tech — from Responsible Tech Playbook
Interested in participating in this conversation about alternative startup culture? I am a proud member of Zebras Unite: a founder-led, cooperatively owned movement creating the culture, capital & community for the next economy. This is where I find the most innovative energy swirling. Zebras (distinct from unicorns) are real, mutualistic, profitable and impactful, sustainable. Start with the manifestos.

🎷 Outro

“There is an urgent need to make ethics more central to our lives, and allow it to be more attractive. As important as offering mindfulness to the world.” — Rob Burbea, Ethics Series

One of my favorite things about ethics is that it’s a never ending exploration; a conversation across millennia that touches on some of the biggest questions imaginable, that in turn shape the trajectory of society. We have much to learn from those who came before us, and we get to co-create what happens next, without attachment to being right or having the final world.

From “grow at all costs” to “unfold more awesomely for all involved.”

We are crafting the new economy and future of society with each new business. This is our growth edge. May we choose wisely. May the highest good be revealed.

Michael Divine–Apotheosis

✅ If You Appreciate These Words

  • Discuss with your co-founders, team, class or community. Share on tech/business Slacks, Discords, and other social channels.
  • Join an intimate Community of Practice of idea stage founders diving deeper into each of the themes in the Ethical Startup Playbook. Six bi-weekly sessions + coaching support, starting in January 2022.
  • Engage me through coaching, consulting, or facilitation. My dream is to become an Ethics Advisor or Chief Ethics Officer for multiple founders/organizations I feel really connected to, being that voice of ethics in the room as they grow.
  • Approach me with feedback, reading recommendations, introductions to those who may help me further my studies and work (andrewmurraydunn at gmail).
  • Consider returning the gift if you feel like you received substantial value from reading this writing (Venmo: @andrew-dunn)
  • Help me take the playbook to the next level through offering editing, design, research, and marketing support. There is a powerful book wanting to be written here.
  • Thank you to the following friends who reviewed and shared feedback: Dr. Wilneida Negrón, Matthew Hastings, Mara Zepeda, Jeff Pawlak, Jared Kasner, Kanupria Sanu, Daniel Roth, Arian Razzaghi
  • This piece was developed in dialogue with an early stage startup called Autopilot as part of an ethics consulting engagement, furthered through participation in the October FutureProof Tech Summit, and finished in time for a Wharton Expert In Residence conversation with Zebras Unite co-founder Mara Zepeda and undergrad/MBA students.
  • Many of the organizations referenced are ones I am involved with to some extent. I would be thrilled to learn about other relevant individuals and organizations. Please let me know who you’re tracking and I will consider adding them!
  • Disclaimer: The materials here are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice etc etc. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular question or challenge.

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Regenerative Tech | Business | Culture | Life. Co-founder @getsiempo, Digital Wellness Collective, @Wharton Wisdom. www.andrewmurraydunn.com

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Andrew Murray Dunn

Andrew Murray Dunn

Regenerative Tech | Business | Culture | Life. Co-founder @getsiempo, Digital Wellness Collective, @Wharton Wisdom. www.andrewmurraydunn.com