A startup is a constant struggle for existence. Every day you face new challenges to the very survival of the company whether it be customers leaving, missed launch dates, hackers extorting you, dwindling cash, key employees leaving, or regulators passing new laws to shut you down.
Survival normally trumps all other considerations in the animal kingdom but perhaps what makes humans unique is moral reasoning and rational thought. Now, people obviously still do a lot to survive and who knows what anyone will do in a desperate situation, but it’s interesting to think about how a group of people put in a situation of moral conflict balances their firm’s survival and the consequences of poor decisions. I can see the arguments for survival at all (legal) costs, but it’s perhaps more interesting to think about the cases where it isn’t absolute live or die but rather thrive or starve.
Here is an example:
Elon Musk said he lost a multi-billion-dollar contract when SpaceX didn’t hire an Air Force official. That corrupt individual then ended up giving the contract to the competing firm and went to go work for that firm. I can believe that happened because I see it all the time. PaperG has been offered on two different occasions to hire a key decision maker behind a potential multi-million dollar contract and when we didn’t, the deal went to someone else. These contracts could have ensured the survival, if not success of the respective companies for some time.
Now, is it illegal to hire that person? Possibly for the case of SpaceX since that person is in public office, but for many other private players it isn’t. I wouldn’t because my thinking is that if you end up hiring someone in that situation even if he/she is qualified, everyone else in the organization will question the judgment and realize that positions are rewarded based on leverage and benefit to the firm rather than the merits of the individual. It can quickly destroy the whole culture of the company and demoralize individuals who want to work their way up. It also puts someone in your organization who clearly disregards the organization’s interests relative to his or her own.
That said, I can see how a firm reaches such a decision to hire an individual. Is it wrong? If you believe you have the best product already and just want to make sure the right decision is reached, I can see how a person might rationalize that it would be okay. But what are the downstream impacts? Do you want to normalize for your team the idea that agents can act at odds with their organization?
It’s all icky. It’s all messy. That’s why it’s a dilemma and so interesting. It’s why startup life is interesting to me.
In some ways, grasping at these issues makes me think that sometimes to be a leader of a startup you in fact need to have strong values and thought out positions and not simply a great innovator. It makes me think that Steve Job may be right that “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”
You can certainly have a financially successful company that not only survives but thrives by ignoring values but it’s hard to say it’s a place that people will be overjoyed to be part of or doing business with. In the end, what are you trying to make? money? or a better place in the world? or the world a better place? Your goal likely will determine your ideals.