On Startup Integrity

When my brother and I first started putting things together for a new project we didn’t sit down and make any grand mission or vision statement(s)… we didn’t right down any value systems or anything that you could print out on paper and hang on a wall.

We didn’t do any of that… instead, we just started building.

Along the way we began to build out systems and processes and workflows that mirrored the what we each brought to the table. These include both our strengths and our weaknesses, naturally.

The beautiful thing about super early-stage is that you both know what you’re doing and you also understand that, at the exact same time, one does not really have any idea around what one is doing.

All you know is that you need to survive the experiments through sheer force of will, execution, and patience. The results will illumine themselves in time and if they don’t then you try again, or, you try a different approach.

And hopefully, in time, one approach will actually end up working.

You know it when you see it.

Along the way, of course, you do everything you can to maintain your sanity, your health, and a lifestyle that’s meaningful and presently rewarding.

You do what you can do maintain (and even build and solidify) the things that ultimately matter and the underlying principles and philosophies that govern your behavior.

As an adult, most of these things have already crystalized – not completely, perhaps, but, the foundation(s) are certainly already there. The unspoken mantras and internal dialogues that dictate one’s behavior, attitude, and treatment of others.

Not all of them are good or useful to building a business and some of them, at times, can seem to hamper or even “get in the way” of a startup’s velocity. One of the most common startup “white lies” is to inflate statistics of growth and reduce (or simply omit) any of the hiccups that are always occurring.

We have grown 100% week-over-week!

This feels very different than the more complete picture which might be:

We have grown 100% week-over-week but we are also paying for this growth and at this rate will be out of cash in 30 days.

The problem is that both statements are true… it’s just the second one is more true.

What we do in private will eventually, inevitably, appear in public. This is just the nature of integrity. No, not the moral uprightness but rather the state of being whole and undivided.

Even a convicted murderer has integrity when they have fully embraced all that is required to commit those acts and is also wholly aware of the costs of their behavior. The national sovereignty of North Korea and their leader act in full integrity as governed by their history and culture.

Our seen behavior is a reflection of our unseen behavior, attitude, and principles. If a startup founder and their team act one way in private but in a distinctly different way in public then it will not end well. There are too many examples to give here that most of us know about.

When you start a company you bring all of those things and they become the internal engine that powers the system. The more you know about the engine(s) themselves the more you can operate maximally as you know the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement and growth.

This is why it’s paramount that you choose the best people to work with and that’s why I make it a point to decide and commit to a person(s) before a project. If I can’t get along with my cofounders or early team members then my life will be nothing short of miserable.

This is also why I take time to work with folks before the commitment is finalized. These trial periods allow me to observe and understand what lies beneath the surface before I sign my name (and life) away for a season with them.

Why? Because integrity is much easier to say than to actually understand. I have met a lot of people who, at first, seemed amazing. A few months later (or even weeks later…) I have a much more empirical and educated perspective.

I don’t leave these relationships too disappointed; I’m just glad I didn’t commit too early. The metaphor of dating and marriage as it relates to startup founding is apt because that’s exactly what it is. You’d never marry someone you just met… or at least without dating for a serious amount of time, right? Then don’t do that with a startup!

As you grow and build out your product and services you begin, hopefully sooner rather than later, to also acquire customers and a larger community.

They will also, in time, see what’s really going on under-the-covers and what was once just private dialogues seem to magically manifest themselves in how the startup treats these customers. Again, I believe this to be inevitable.

Peter and I are not even a full year into our new venture but we’ve got a fantastic group of early customers and community that has begun to see the “cracks,” the behind-the-scenes of what’s really going on.

And we’re so grateful that they do because if it’s inevitable then I’d rather have it come out now instead of later.

Startup integrity is not a hard thing to understand and it’s not a complicated set of rituals or practices. It is simply you, as an individual and then the aggregate of the other founder’s beliefs and behaviors.

This “soup” mix is all you’ve got and you hope and pray that it’ll be enough to get you to the very end. The choose is, as always, yours and mine.


Also published on Medium.