Writing about the importance of telling the truth in business might seem unnecessary. We all know that you shouldn't lie, cheat, or steal and most businesses live up to those basics or they die fast. But conducting business in a fundamentally truthful way means going beyond those basics to adopt an honest, open, and customer-centric culture. Observing a deeper standard of doing business truthfully is hard work, but also a tremendous asset for your company--it's the foundation for customer trust and the long-term relationships that are built as a result. As you're building your company, you'll encounter situations that can lead you off that course, but you can avoid many of them by answering three questions:
1. Are you being truthful about putting customers first?
Almost every business talks about creating value for customers as a top priority. But if many companies honestly assessed their practices, they'd realize their definition of "value" equates to maximizing the return they can extract from customers. It's rarely by design--almost every business that sees early traction starts by solving a customer's problem. But over time, many businesses make their customers' success less of a priority. Some seek to skip out on the hard work of keeping pace with customer needs as they evolve by taking advantage of incumbency or brand recognition to pad pricing, or by focusing on getting contracts that bundle in services that aren't truly useful to customers. That's toxic to any business. Sooner or later, either your customers will decide that doing business with you isn't worth the trouble or a competitor who can do a better job in meeting your customers' needs will take advantage of the space you've created.
2. Are you being truthful with yourself about your business?
Often entrepreneurs' biggest blunders are preceded by ignoring clear indicators that they were headed down the wrong path. Sure, success requires a lot of courage and the willingness to push past your doubts, but when a warning sign crops up, you have to take the time to assess it honestly before you push on. The truth is, leaders often sidestep tackling real problems because addressing them head-on is harder than avoiding them.
No one wants to make difficult staffing decisions, backtrack on bold proclamations, or go back to the drawing board after investing months or years in setting the direction you're headed down, but none of these are good reasons to avoid a course correction when it is truly needed. I've had to do all three, and Okta is a much stronger company because of it. Actually, Okta wouldn't be Okta if my co-founder, Frederic Kerrest, and I hadn't been truthful with ourselves about our original idea for our company. It lacked a bold vision and mass appeal, and after meeting with hundreds of CIOs and hearing what they needed (and what they didn't), we tossed out a lot of hard work and started over. But facing that truth and doing something about it was the difference between a dead end and the successful business that Okta is today.
3. Are you being truthful with your co-workers and advisors when you're stumped?
If you're an entrepreneur, and you've built something that has already made it a little (or a long) way on the merits of your original idea to solve an unfilled need, there will be internal pressure to solve the next obstacle as soon as it presents itself. And there might be fear that not having the solution will sap the confidence you've earned from colleagues, customers and investors. The key here is to acknowledge that the day will come when you won't have the answer on your own.
When you build your team, make sure you are bringing in people with talents complementary to yours. If you take on investors, make sure they are a source of smart counsel and not just funding. And never, ever stop listening to your customers--remember how hard you dug into their needs when you first started? You always have to dig that deep to keep your company on the right track.