Startup Governance

The recent debacle involving LaunchVic and 500 Startups comes at a time when startups and entrepreneurs are facing increased public scrutiny over their ethical behaviour. Having a great idea, building an innovative or disruptive business, and attracting investors is not carte blanche to disregard corporate governance and social responsibility obligations. So how do we instil a better “moral compass” among startups and their founders?

The TV sitcom, “Silicon Valley”, is drawn from experience of the software industry, but it also reveals much that ails the startup economy. As funny as it is, the series also highlights some painful truths. Scenes where founders “trade” equity in their non-existent companies are just one aspect of how startups can develop an over-inflated sense of their own worth. These interactions also reveal how startups can reward inappropriate behaviour – if sweat equity is the only way founders can “pay” their team, it can lead to distorted thinking and impaired judgement, because the incentive to go along with poor decision-making is greater than the threat of any immediate sanction.

A key challenge for any startup is knowing when to seek external advice – not just legal, tax or accounting services, but an independent viewpoint. Many startups don’t bother (or need) to establish a board of directors – and if they do, they normally consist of only the founders and key shareholders. The role of independent, non-executive directors is probably under-valued by startups. But even an advisory board (including mentors who may already be guiding the business) would allow for some more formal and impartial debate.

Another challenge for startups is that in needing to attract funding, they can find themselves swimming with the sharks, so doing due diligence on potential investors is a critical task in building a sustainable cap table that will benefit the longer term aims of the business.

Equally, if startup founders are motivated to “do their own thing”, because they are driven by purpose or a higher cause, or they simply want to make a difference, they can risk having to compromise their values in order to engage with bigger, more-established companies. So they may end up emulating the very behaviours they sought to change or challenge. Neither startups nor big corporations have a monopoly on unethical behaviour, but if founders stray from their original founding principles, they will soon alienate their stakeholders.

Finally, nurturing the “conscience” of a startup is not something that should be left to the founder(s) alone. The vision has to be shared with, and owned by everyone involved, especially as the business scales. Everything should be measured or tested against this criteria – “does it stay true to or enhance our reason for being here?” Without a clear sense of what is important to a startup, it will also struggle to convey its core value proposition.

Next week: Digital Richmond

 

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