Last week, I wrote a post about ethics and legality in small business, and how a couple of A-listers made some whale-sized mistakes in that department. When I wrote it, I expected a sizable response. Naming names tends to do that. I also expected a lot of that attention to be negative, because usually, A-listers are called that for a reason; a lot of people love them and are fiercely loyal to them. In addition, I knew a lot of my readers love them and pay close attention to their every move.
I spent two solid days on that post, with very, very little sleep. I read and re-read it and sent it to trusted colleagues for input [something I almost never do]; I wanted to make sure it struck the right tone. It HAD to strike the right tone. I knew it needed to be more thought and less gut, or the message would get lost in the anger. Which was hard. I was really, really angry when I started writing it. The first draft had a lot of bad words and exclamation points, and a heaping dose of sarcasm. It was really funny and probably would have gotten a ton of attention too. But, it would have been more the, “Look at that chick blow a gasket!” kind of attention, which was not what it needed to be.
What I wanted was to inspire thought. I wanted readers to see that following anyone blindly is a horrible business plan, and that there are no magic beans out there that will get you from, “Holy shit I just started a business!” to “Holy shit I am still in business and can feed my family, pay my health insurance bill, AND go on vacation occasionally.” You just have to trudge through the crap like everyone else.
I wanted to use this deplorable example of an ethical and legal fail to remind you that most of what you need to know about business you already know. And it’s not in your brain, it’s in your gut. You either have it or you don’t. The core of doing business is really really simple. You learned it in kindergarten: Treat others how you want to be treated. The rest is all semantics and tactics and skills. Don’t fuck over your clients or friends and they won’t fuck you over. Don’t litter the internet with useless garbage and people won’t associate you with useless garbage tossing.
If, however, you DIDN’T learn that, or you think you did but you still treat some people like crap and rationalize that they had it coming, then you don’t actually have it at all.
I’d like to think that I have it, which is why I thought hard about that post. It needed to be insult-free. It needed to be about behavior, not personality. And it needed to speak to the right people – the people who might have responded to an ad that would put them in a position to be taken advantage of.
You don’t need Marie Forleo or Derek Halpern or me, for that matter. We can’t teach you how to be a good person, or how to have a good business or a good life – but when we stand above you and tell you what to do, we absolutely have the power to show you how not to be. When someone models bad behavior from a place of success, it validates that bad behavior as acceptable. We business teachers can’t teach you how to be in business, we can only teach you what to do in business – which is obviously valuable – but when we suck at that and tell you to do the wrong thing, someone needs to speak up.
Several people asked me why I didn’t send Marie and Derek a direct email telling them that what they were doing was wrong. It’s a valid question.
Here’s why I didn’t do that:
a. I am not the business police, nor do I want to be. This is a conversation about ethics. I am not in the business of finger-wagging.
b. They are in a position to know better. They both have lawyers and accountants and hold themselves up as business teachers. They should know better. They have the resources to know better.
c. Me telling them that they were wrong privately gives them the opportunity to craft the message – to make a statement about learning from their mistakes. Which is good – if they actually do LEARN. But offering them the opportunity to carefully craft a public response in marketing-speak felt wrong too.
d. There is a generally accepted rule that you don’t name names publicly because it’s petty or something. I don’t actually believe this. So I don’t have to play by that rule. Why don’t we want to point out who we’re really talking about? Who wrote that rule? Perhaps if we did a better job of spreading the word about unethical behavior, there would be less of it out there. Big business CEOs get called out by the media all the time. Why should online business be any different?
e. The people that follow the big people have the power. I believe that if I want to make a difference, I should talk to them.
I have no idea if either of them read my post. And frankly, I really don’t care. Getting to them wasn’t the point. Getting to YOU was.
You are the important ones, because you will be the next generation of leaders.
Online business in the form it’s taking now is still really new – we haven’t really had a lot of time to see if there will be sustainable success to be had here as solopreneurs.
What I am seeing over and over is that many of the people who have achieved success in the past couple of years, have done so by modeling traditional corporate business trappings while preaching new paradigms.
They are modeling the same predatory, manipulative behavior that got those people camping out in tents on Wall Street all riled up. It’s elitist. It’s hypocritical. And it drives me bonkers.
They are not selling skills, they are selling tactics – for getting a lifestyle, a vibe, a flavor.
It’s like selling the bun and condiments without the hot dog inside – from the outside it looks all yummy and full of extras and goodness and everything a hungry belly would want. But then you take a bite and realize you would have to eat a whole lot to feel full. And you would never actually get the stuff that fuels you and keeps you going [let’s pretend that hot dogs are actually fuel here for just a second – you are welcome to rage about diet in the comments later].
I work online because the freedom of it is fantastic. I thank my lucky stars every day that I live in a time where this exists.
The democratic nature of the space is phenomenal. And the people here are smart, driven, and incredibly creative. There is a culture emerging here that is built on trust, transparency, and helpfulness that you simply don’t see in traditional corporate business. We are allowed to be more than just business owners here – we are allowed to be people.
I value these ideas higher than just about anything, because I know how precious and fragile they are.
If we don’t guard this culture and defend it, it will succumb to greed and ignorance, just like everything else.
Two themes came up again and again in the response I got from last week’s post: Fear and Guts.
Several people expressed that they thought I had serious guts for saying what I said, and many of you emailed me directly with words of support – quiet support, because you were afraid of the possible repercussions of commenting publicly. A couple people mentioned that they thought about writing something similar but didn’t. And the whole time I was reading all this, I kept thinking, “Why is this, THIS, so scary?” I wasn’t afraid of being crushed by Marie’s stilettos when I wrote it. On the contrary, repercussions never really occurred to me. I wrote it because I thought it was important and needed to be said. And honestly, I was pretty damn surprised that I was the only one that did.
I mean, what is so scary about discourse? Why should it take guts to point out something so clearly wrong? What could possibly happen that would be so catastrophic?
Nothing. The answer is nothing. On the contrary. That post got a 100% positive response. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT. I didn’t even get one single angry email. Not one.
I did get new subscribers. And new friends. And invites for interviews. And more attention for something I have written in a long time. Which was bad-ass.
Here’s why it worked:
1. I included facts. If you don’t have those, people will crucify you.
2. I didn’t make it personal. If you do, you have sucked the wind out of your point and people will crucify you.
3. I did it because I hoped people would pay attention, not because I wanted to get attention. People can tell the difference. Get it wrong and people will crucify you.
4. I was really prepared for responding to comments and emails. Hot button issues need fast and thoughtful responses. Ignore people and they will crucify you.
I’m glad my work inspired the response it did. It felt great. Do I think you should write a post like it? Only if it’s for the right reasons and you do your homework first. Don’t be just another blogger with a chip on their shoulder and a bone to pick. Decide what you stand for and defend it like your livelihood depends on it. Because it does.