The ethical dilemmas brought about by the drive to succeed
Today, the ‘hustle’ has become an indelible part of achieving success as an entrepreneur. We draw inspiration from the rags-to-riches story of Jeff Bezos, and are enticed by the plethora of possibilities offered by the business world after reading the biography of Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson.
We link triumph not just with the numbers or figures associated with a company, but with the creativity and persistence employed by founders to navigate a route lined with obstacles. After all, the journey does largely lend significance to the destination.
The idolization of hustlers — people who work towards their goal with single-mindedness — allows us to maximize our output and achieve more everyday. Glorifying the grind has enabled us to innovate like never before, and make optimal use of minimal resources.
However, the mentality of ‘doing anything to get to our goal’ can have uneasy ethical implications. Focusing on a goal to that extent may lead a hustler to indulge in moral transgressions. The actions of hustlers may not be illegal, but they often toe the contestable line between right and wrong, and may set dangerous precedents for those who epitomize them and their actions.
Reddit is the 6th most popular website in the United States today, and provides people with a platform to voice their opinion on almost anything. The brainchild of Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, Reddit Co-founders, now facilitates free speech and allows people to gain information and perspectives on a variety of issues.
However, the popularity of Reddit is rooted in hustle culture. Before Reddit became the household name that it is today, Huffman and Ohanian used hundreds of fake accounts to populate the site. By creating high-quality content under different usernames, the founders gave the impression of a large, highly-engaged community, and eventually stopped depending on fake accounts to increase their daily active users.
Today, Reddit is highly intolerant of fake accounts and deception, which in light of the website’s beginnings, may seem somewhat ironic. Yet, it cannot be ignored that the platform is beneficial and popular today, and is a source of entertainment and information for millions around the globe.
With over 1 billion users, WeChat is the largest instant messaging app in China today. But its predecessor, now somewhat edged into the shadows, is Tencent QQ.
The app was a household name before the launch of WeChat. At the peak of its popularity in 2016, QQ had 899 million users. However, the app didn’t shoot to fame upon launch; it was the product of perseverance and just a touch of morally-grey hustling.
Ma Huateng, one of the founders of Tencent, set up a fake, female profile in the QQ chat room and socialized with new users, hoping to increase and attract more people to the platform. ‘Catfishing’ was already a widely-used term and a part of popular culture (the MTV show Catfish premiered in 2012), but Ma reinvented it in a determined attempt to keep his company going.
Though catfishing is certainly not an admirable recreational pursuit, Huateng was a ‘hustler’ in multiple other ways: in Tencent’s infancy, he worked in multiple roles, including as a janitor and a website designer, to keep the company afloat.
Huateng created an app that ultimately attracted spectacular numbers of users, and is now at the helm of one of the biggest Internet companies in the world, but his initial tactics showcase what founders with everything at stake will do to keep the dream alive.
The founding and growth story of Airbnb could almost be the subject matter of a Hollywood feature film.
Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia wanted to provide people with a cheap, easy-to-access form of accommodation when visiting other cities. After starting out small, the two founders went to desperate lengths to scale their business, including selling customized cereal boxes for fundraising, and walking from apartment to apartment to photograph Airbnb listings.
Though their website was up, Airbnb was no match for competitors such as Craigslist, so Chesky and Gebbia decided to leverage Craigslist traffic and users, and direct them toward Airbnb instead.
Using bots, Airbnb sent customized emails to everyone who had put up advertisements on Craigslist, asking them if they’d like to post their listings on Airbnb too. Over time, people began to recognize the benefits that Airbnb offered over Craigslist, and today, it has over 150 million users worldwide. Though Craigslist is still very much around, and is said to generate over $1 billion in revenues, it’s fallen far from the household name it once was.
These stories aren’t particular standouts; in business, we often see a trade-off between maintaining complete moral integrity and making a profit. Often, hard choices need to be made, and the founders usually have plenty to lose.
Many argue that this is hardly a ‘problem’ and rather, epitomizes the spirit that founders need in order to carry their businesses through. Worse, some argue that cracking down on these kinds of practices could impede the progress of innovation. There’s definitely no winning there. Yet, it does matter that we know, and stay aware of the twisting paths that entrepreneurs take to make their way to the top.
Header image by Marten Bjork on Unsplash