Do The Right Thing

Smart entrepreneurs are doing well by doing good.

Because we believe the subject matter is so important, Entrepreneur Media is running the following article, examining the question of ethics for small business, in three of our publications: Entrepreneur, Business Start-Ups and Entrepreneur's HomeOffice.

Charlie Wilson is trying to run an ethical business. He's made social responsibility part of the mission statement at his $1.6 million Houston-based salvage company, SeaRail International Inc. And he's made "self-actualization"--not wealth--his ultimate goal as an entrepreneur.

But don't mistake Wilson for some moralistic stick-in-the-mud. It's all about success. "Ethics is what's spearheading our growth," says Wilson. "It creates an element of trust, familiarity and predictability in the business. We're in an industry where a lot of people cut corners. I just don't think that's good for business. You don't get a good reputation doing things that way. And eventually, customers don't want to do business with you."

For years, ethics and business had a rocky marriage. Ask entrepreneurs to talk about ethics, and the responses ranged from scorn to ridicule. Here are folks who--by definition--like breaking the rules. Suggesting that entrepreneurs should follow a predefined set of edicts was about as popular as asking them to swear off electricity.

But this may be changing. Whether people are hung over from the freewheeling '80s or reflective about the coming millennium, talk about values, integrity and responsibility is not only becoming acceptable in the business community, it's almost required.

"This looks just like the quality movement of 20 years ago," says Frank Walker, chairman of Indianapolis-based Walker Information Inc., a research and consulting company that tracks customer satisfaction and business ethics. "Customers need a way to differentiate one firm from another." For years, the dominant point of differentiation has been quality. Now, says Walker, "Everyone can deliver quality, [ so businesses] need to step up to a higher plane."

Are the nation's entrepreneurs ready to ascend to new heights of ethical literacy and compliance? Well, sort of. Although most entrepreneurs still aren't trying to unseat the likes of Socrates and Plato, many are giving considerable thought to improving their ethics, with hopes that doing good business will be good for business as well.

Gayle Sato Stodder covers entrepreneurship for various publications. She lives in Redondo Beach, California.

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This article was originally published in the August 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Do The Right Thing.

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