These aren't the best of times for the tech industry. Every day another jerk emerges as the latest poster boy of ego and entitlement, someone who can't figure out how to keep his hands to himself and/or his ugly mouth shut. And the many feeble attempts and faux justifications made in the name of speed and scale doesn't really advance the discussion or explain the situation, either.

It's as if we're saying that, because we're in such a hurry to be huge, we don't have the time to be decent human beings. Come on, there have to be some basic behavioral ground rules and a little more substance to the culture of the tech and entrepreneurial community than the celebration of cash, cars, and creepy, chauvinistic CEOs chugging Cristal. I get that money doesn't care whose pockets it ends up in, but morals and menschkeit actually do matter.

And I also realize that, apart from the obvious and easy cases of gross and overt behavior, it's not quite as simple as you might think to create some guidelines and guard rails for these situations. One issue is that many of these businesses are being built and run by beginners. As often as not, they're no more advanced and informed in terms of their people strengths and skills than they are in any of the other areas of operating and growing a business. You can tell people things over and over again until you run out of breath, but ultimately you can't understand for them. If they don't get it and take these ideas to heart, the job just doesn't get done.

It gets even more complicated when you try to put a stake in the ground and commit your team to certain important ideas and values. Because in the real world, even the most sacrosanct values are somewhat mutable. And in the context of an immature business, some of them actually do have to change-- at least from a priority perspective-- as time passes and the organization grows and hopefully matures. There are concerns and necessities that drive the operations of a startup (like making payroll and keeping the doors open) that aren't the same as those which a larger and more established company can "afford." Survival in the short run sometimes trumps the desire and ability to secure other social goals. Even if your heart is 100% in the right place, it's hard when you're in a hurry to serve too many different masters or to try to be all things to everyone.

Democracy in decision making is a good, simple example. (See Four Reasons Democracy Adds Up to Mediocrity.) It's absolutely clear that whatever the "deal" was when the startup got started about everyone being consulted and having a vote on every important decision, it doesn't usually last beyond the first fundraising. There's just not enough room at the table for everyone to have a seat. And, more importantly, too many things become time-sensitive to let you take the time to take everyone's temperature on every question. There are solid business reasons, as the size and complexity of your business increases, to avoid inviting everyone to every party. (See With This Much Help You'll Never Get Anything Done.)

But none of these legitimate considerations excuse the plain old boorish behaviors or worse that we're reading about today. No entrepreneur can afford to create a company culture that isn't based on certain fundamental beliefs established right at the start of the enterprise. It's a lot easier from Day One to live up to 100% of your values than 99% because there's no end to that slippery slope once you begin to move in that direction. And you never know how deep your commitment really is until those values are stress tested. Talk is cheap.

If you build a business based exclusively on speed and shortcuts-- even if you claim to be acting in the best interests of your customers-- you'll eventually end up with a second-rate solution. If your best idea is always to blame the customer and never take responsibility for the cause and the remedy, your products and services will surely and shortly suck. Worst of all, if you encourage your people to embellish the truth or flat out lie to your customers, they'll eventually lie to you, too. Fish and businesses rot from the head down. There's a right way-;not necessarily an easy way-;to do these things, but it starts at the top of the organization.

And when you do get it right and your culture is clicking on all cylinders, it's a beautiful thing. That's why it's especially encouraging for me to occasionally stumble upon a story worth sharing that suggests there are still people in our business who actually give a damn about the things that really matter.

This is one such tale. We were in a board meeting for one of our EdTech companies and talking about the usual KPIs and basic business stuff and about how various aspects of the company's product development and enhancement efforts were progressing-- especially how quickly we were moving to bring some of these new and critical features to market. Remember that July's an especially tough and stressful time in the EdTech world because the start of the new school year is just around the corner and, if you're not there when the doors open, you're nowhere.

You spend a lot of time in these meetings dealing with the "nice to have" versus the "need to have" issues. There's often a lot of jargon and abbreviations in these "technical" conversations. It appeared to me that one major set of fixes and updates (which had been a gating factor for a lot of the work to follow, and consumed a lot of time and resources) was nearly complete. That would allow the developers to move on to the next changes, which were clearly revenue and student acquisition drivers.

And here's where the conversation got really interesting. The just-finished changes weren't gonna add students any time soon. They weren't going to drive new monthly or quarterly revenues. They weren't even being requested or required by current customers, who were basically happy with the status quo. Under the best of scenarios, the changes addressed to the needs of only a tiny portion of the potential user population.

This didn't feel like either "need" or "nice" to have-- it felt like the last place the team should be spending scarce resources or critical time. In fact, it turns out that there's another category in the consideration set for companies that care about what they're doing and why. It's called "right to have". What were the changes all about? They all related to upgrades in ADA-compliant accessibility. Keyboard capabilities, screen readers, and captioning - all necessary to make the company's products available and workable for everyone. Changes that were anticipatory and miles and miles ahead of the market, most of the competition, and even their own users. And, make no mistake, this was heavy lifting and a lot of thankless hard work.

Bottom line: Not necessarily the place that the numbers or non-stop notoriety would ever take you, but the right thing to do if you're trying to make an important difference in people's lives.

Published on: Jul 17, 2017
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