In an increasingly competitive marketplace, can a business that puts principle above profit still survive? Actually, a growing number of entrepreneurial companies are bucking the philosophy that money makes the world go 'round.
"It's obvious that a lot of people choose profits over principle," says Albert A. Anderson, professor of philosophy and business ethics at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "But a number of people are [succeeding and] still managing to stand on their principles."
When Bob Stein co-founded The Voyager Co., a multimedia publisher in Manhattan, he made a commitment to publish quality titles. "I wanted to publish things of import to this society," explains Stein.
With titles on subjects such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and an alternative look at American history, the 11-year-old Voyager Co. has built a reputation in the industry for a painstaking emphasis on quality. "Let's put it this way," Stein says, "we have a lot of respect for our audience."
By comparison, Stein seems to have placed much less significance on profits. "Our goal has always been to break even," he says. "Making a lot of money at this point in multimedia doesn't seem possible, so we never tried to go for it."
Stein is not oblivious to the fact that others are going for it-and that competition in that multimedia industry is getting tougher. "There are more players now playing for higher stakes," he acknowledges. "Sure, we take that into account. We don't operate as an island."
Yet Stein is, in a certain sense, removed from the contingent of businesspeople perceived as money-driven. "Entrepreneurs already have the mind-set that separates them from a person who readily submits," says Anderson. "What characterizes an entrepreneur more than a strong will, strong mind, strong principles? You just don't start a business if you're easily cowed by other people's values."
While Voyager's top sellers haven't brought in nearly the revenue of other companies' hit CD-ROM games, Stein has resisted the temptation to simply go for the gold. "I don't see us changing our game plan tomorrow and trying to be just another game publisher," he says. "We probably wouldn't be successful if we did that anyway."
Even those Voyager ventures that could be interpreted as a move toward the mainstream have held some higher purpose. Stein says he took on a 20-year retrospective of People magazine because he "wanted the opportunity to work with important cultural icons and to present them in a way that revealed something."
And Voyager's decision to move from Macintosh into PC formats involved no grand scheme to grow huge, but, says Stein, "was done more for the purpose of satisfying a customer base and market share. It involved keeping the company at a break-even point." Not exactly the goals of your typical bottom-line-driven company.
But is it possible to have the best of both worlds-to combine profits with principles? Perhaps, although some level of compromise often accompanies business objectives. "You have to decide which is more important, then you do your best to survive," says Stein. "But if you decide principles are more important than profits, there's a price to pay-and you have to be willing to pay it."
And is Stein willing to pay? "We have been so far," he says. "And we've been very lucky."
Meanwhile, for a select few who make their morals a priority, there's a sliver of a chance not just to survive, but to thrive. "If you look at the entrepreneurs we honor for being outstanding in their fields, their notion of quality, of making a difference, is extremely important," says Anderson. "These are people who don't want to make it if they can't hold on to their principles."