Startup good and evil

Pioneer square

“Software is eating the world.” said Marc Andreesen. This is truer ever day, especially here in Seattle, as I watch the job postings pile up, the resumes pour in, the old apartments being torn down to be replaced with expensive condos for the engineer elite. I go to parties and everyone talks about software, what they want to do with it, or if they aren’t in software, how they feel about their world being eaten by it.

As I sit here in this posh Pioneer Square coffee shop, surrounded by both poverty and a hundred and one startups full of wealthy engineers, I can’t help but wonder: what should developers and software companies in this neighborhood be doing with all of this power? Do they have any responsibility to use it for good? Or is profit motive enough?

One conclusion I’ve come to after founding a software startup of my own is that it’s certainly hard enough to profit that factoring in any other consideration is nearly impossible. There’s just not time once a business already exists.

There is a magical point at which there is time to consider good and evil, and that’s before someone has chosen an opportunity pursue. We don’t have to choose the “evil” opportunities. We can choose the “good” ones. (We’ll save definitions of good and evil for another post).

Yes, knowing which opportunities are good and which are bad is hard. Unintended side effects abound. Finding opportunities that are both good and profitable is often an over-constrained problem. And what’s good to one person isn’t always good to another.

But we software people solve hard problems all the time, don’t we? Why can’t we solve the problem of finding profitable, “good” businesses?

One reason is that the software industry doesn’t like to talk about the opportunities its pursuing. We operate in stealth, fearing theft of our precious opportunities, and wait until they’re fully formed and ready to share before we get feedback from the world.

But is there really all that much risk on someone capitalizing before us? There are tons of profitable ideas. There are only so many people with the timing, resources, and risk profile to pursue them, and so few do.

Take the energy industry. Saving energy is “good” by some definitions, for us, for the planet, and for business. There are lots of ideas about how to do this, many of them shared publicly in the academic archive; many are even disclosed in patents. That industry seems to be doing just fine. Growing many business, with lots of competition, seems to help everyone, even if most businesses go under.

So the next time you’re thinking about starting a business, consider talking to people about your opportunity. Yes, learn about its profit potential, but also learn about its other potential. What harm will it do? What jobs will it kill? What joy will it bring? What are the full spectrum of side effects it will have, good or bad? Are there ways to tweak the opportunity to bend the curve for the better, while also encouraging profitability?

And don’t just ask the software people in your software bubble. Ask an ethicist. Solicit a sociologist. Argue with an anthropologist. Inquire an information scientist. Persuade a political scientist. Try getting the perspective of every discipline rather than just your discipline. Does everyone see a win? Go for it. Does someone see an evil? At least you’ll know it, going in.

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