Succeeding in business should not require sacrificing your morals

There are days when I wonder if I am cut out to run a business. This past Sunday was one.

Mark Suster, a General Partner at Venture Capital firm Upfront Ventures, wrote a post titled “Understanding the Underbelly of Online Marketing & While You’ll Lose if You Don’t“.  For the most part, his post is right on the mark. In order to succeed in today’s market, you need to market your product aggressively. There is so much noise out there, that you’ve got to find a way to rise above it. Otherwise, you won’t get found. To complicate matters, most of the “easy” channels like Google AdWords and Facebook Marketing have become over crowded and expensive. It requires that you get creative with your marketing and, as a startup – especially a boot strapped startup, that you find methods that are economical.

The going term which Mark refers to describe the above is “Growth Hacking” (which he wrote a great article on, too). I agree with growth hacking. Here’s is what I have a problem with from the article:

I normally tell companies with whom I work, “In online marketing you’ll likely need to skate right up to the line of acceptability without crossing it in order to grow at exponential rates. You’ll cross it from time-to-time, get checked, and quickly realize you were on the wrong side of the line. Mea culpa and get right back into line. If you’re nowhere near the line of acceptability you’re playing in the wrong rink.”

In other words, I need to be comfortable employing, as he puts it earlier in the article, “slightly nefarious” techniques from time to time, and if I get caught, just apologize and move on. Really?

It bothers me that he condones, and even encourages, companies he works with to employ nefarious techniques, no matter how slight they may be.

A Slippery Slope

From my experience, playing in the gray area is a slippery slope. As one tastes success from employing “slightly nefarious” tactics, these become accepted as standard operating procedure, and the the next play is to move deeper into the gray area. Before long, being successful requires playing in black hat territory. In fact, it’s already happening.

Look at how the social media companies are violating their users privacy in the name of attracting more marketing dollars to feed the business. At first, these moves are contraversial, but as time passes, they are justified as reasonable, and more liberties are taken. Look at Facebook. They’ve made it clear that they have no qualms violating your privacy to improve the effectiveness of their marketing if it enables them to meet their growth and revenue targets. They’re even willing to risk lawsuits and fines to find out just how far they can go.

Have we entered the “steroid era” of entrepreneurship

When baseball players started using supplements to improve performance, those who were the most aggressive in their experimentation put up bigger numbers and were rewarded with fame and lucrative contracts. Since the bigger numbers put fans in the seats, the League and its owners looked the other way. It didn’t take long before players needed to escalate to steroids and  drugs to achieve ever bigger numbers and rewards. In the end, those who lacked morals were rewarded, and those who did the right thing were effectively punished because they weren’t willing to take the risks required to play the game. It wasn’t until the government intervened that baseball was forced to clean up its act. Otherwise, the game would become about who had the best drugs, not about who worked the hardest to develop their talent.

The above story makes me wonder if online marketing is heading the same direction.Those who are willing to employ “slightly nefarious” techniques and crossing the line of acceptability are rewarded, while those who do the right thing are punished. As more and more gray hat techniques become known and accepted, when are online marketers forced to revert to black hat techniques to get the results they want? How nefarious will online marketers have to get when everyone has discovered the “slightly nefarious” techniques that worked? And when does the whole thing come crashing down? Will it take government intervention and people going to jail to put things back in perspective?

There is another way

To be clear, I am NOT saying that growth hacking is wrong. The point I’m making is that using nefarious techniques to achieve exponential growth is akin to using PEDs to post large home run numbers. It’s a shortcut that is rationalized because it delivers short-term results, but these results come at the expense of long-term health.

Just like anything, getting to the top of your field is hard work, even in online marketing. There are those out there who understand how to dissect analytics reports to infer user behavior, to identify the marketing channels that are working, and to optimize online marketing spend. It’s a complex process, and it takes a lot of effort and practice to master (to get a taste of the complexity, check out Avinash Kaushik’s blog – Occam’s Razor). These are the true practitioners of growth hacking.

So what is this “other way”? It’s to roll up your sleeves and put in the work to understand how to analyze and dissect the reports from Google Analytics, or whatever tool you’re comfortable with. Yes, it’s not as easy as taking the short cut of employing “gray hat” tactics, but in the end, you will build a better business that is built on sound value. Plus, you won’t run the risk of having your business suffer when you’re caught, or worse yet, having to pay hefty fines or do jail time for your questionable decisions.

What are your “go to war” values?

Again, I’m not opposed to employing aggressive marketing techniques, using analytics, and getting creative about how to acquire customers. But when people do things they know are questionable or flat our wrong, whether it’s morally, ethically, or legally, they need to be called on it. Pushing the envelop, getting caught, and then asking people to “forgive and forget”, or offering a simple mea culpa, doesn’t cut it. Especially when it’s done with intent.

My good friend and colleague, Jeff Turner, wrote a great post last year titled “What Are Your ‘Go to War’ Values?” It’s written more in the context of the values an organization rewards, but I’m going to twist it a bit and say that employing nefarious techniques as a shortcut to success is one of my “Go To War” values and where I draw the line in business.

So maybe I’m being naive, but I want to build a business based on trust, doing the right things by my employees, customers and investors, and doing it through determination, persistence, perseverance and hard work. If it takes a little longer than normal to be successful, than so be it. But I’ll do it being able to sleep at night and without having to look over my shoulder wondering when I’ll get caught.

So as Mark put it, maybe I’m skating in the wrong rink, or playing with one hand tied behind my back, but I’d rather do that than sacrifice my morals to achieve short-term success.