In the hustle of the startup world, entrepreneurs often drop little white lies -- and don't even consider them to be lies. Where's the ethical line?
Gary Hirshberg knew the exact amount of money he needed to save his company: $592,500. It was 1988, and his fledgling yogurt brand, Stonyfield Farm, was near collapse -- rocked by the closing of its third-party manufacturer, hemorrhaging money as it struggled to fulfill orders and unable to find new investors. But with that exact amount of cash, Hirshberg and his co-founder, Samuel Kaymen, calculated, they could open their own facility and regain their footing.
So Hirshberg drove down to his local SBA office with an informal proposal. “We’ve got a bank willing to provide the loan,” he told an officer, and he said his shareholders agreed to put up $100,000. All he needed from the SBA was its 85 percent loan guarantee, which would make the bank comfortable executing the financing.
The SBA liked what it heard, and that positive response set in motion the funding that would save Stonyfield Farm and enable it to grow into one of today’s most recognizable yogurt brands. But in truth, the SBA didn’t know the whole story. Hirshberg didn’t have a bank lined up. His investors hadn’t committed the money. All he had was a vision for his company, a plan to save it…and, ugly as it may sound, a lie that would pull it all together.
Let’s put it bluntly: This is common. Entrepreneurs lie. It’s not like they regularly drop Theranos-level falsehoods to defraud customers and investors, but the scrappiness of entrepreneurship inevitably leads to some kind of deception. People say their company is bigger than it is, that they’re more prepared than they are, that they know how to do something they don’t. They spot an opportunity and they lie to get it, and that becomes part of their story -- an origin that may one day even be celebrated, like how Steve Jobs famously faked his way through the first iPhone demo at Macworld even though the device itself was a buggy mess.
But here’s a question the entrepreneurship community has been struggling with for centuries: Is it OK to lie? And when does a lie go too far?
It’s tricky, because most entrepreneurs don’t see their deceptions as lies at all. Hirshberg doesn’t. “I mean, look -- you beg, borrow, steal, stretch. You do what’s necessary,” he says today. In truth, the editors of Entrepreneur can get drawn into this logic. Just recently, this magazine ran a series of articles on bootstrapping, which featured a number of stories about entrepreneurs stretching the truth. One of them, for example, was about Anthony Byrne, the CEO of a Dublin-based company called Product2Market. In the startup’s early days, Microsoft considered hiring it but first wanted to conduct a site visit to make sure Product2Market had the necessary manpower. In reality, it didn’t. So in advance of Microsoft’s site visit, Byrne brought friends, family and neighbors into his office, having them pose as employees to make his startup seem twice its size. It worked. Microsoft signed on.
After that story ran, an Entrepreneur reader emailed an objection. “I don’t think the magazine should be promoting people who got ahead by lying as an example for others to follow,” he wrote. But Byrne doesn’t think of his action as lying; he sees it as a simple act of survival. In a crowded industry dominated by big players, he needed to look larger and capable. “As soon as we got our first big deal, I did in fact hire the right number of people to fulfill the contract,” he says.
This is also how Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm sees his own circumstance. Rather than lying, he was creating an opportunity he knew he could fulfill. True, he didn’t have a bank or his investors on board with his plan. But he knew a banker that was interested in his brand and figured that if the SBA seemed on board, the bank and investors would follow. And that’s what happened. “It’s OK as long as you ultimately do deliver,” Hirshberg says.
But context is also important, he thinks. If entrepreneurs lie for the sake of lying, or for their own personal gain, that’s a problem. But what if it’s for a common good? Consider his plight, he says: Stonyfield Farm may have been small at the time, but it was employing people and supporting their families. Hirshberg’s wife was pregnant, and his mother-in-law and other family and friends had put significant money into the company. He’d tried repeatedly to save it by more direct means. He even found a potential manufacturer that promised to step in and help -- but at the last second, the manufacturer tried changing the contract to steal the brand away.
Hirshberg and his co-founder nearly gave up. Then they made one last-ditch effort -- going to the SBA. “I believe that determination is the most undervalued and essential ingredient for success,” he says. “More than a great product. More than financial acumen. More than great marketing. It’s just absolute determination, and as a corollary, believing in yourself when no one else does.” If they went out of business, lots of people would lose. He was determined for that to not happen. The lie was worth it, he says. It was just an entrepreneur doing what was necessary.
Not everyone is going to accept this. Purists will surely say Hirshberg and Byrne and others are just liars justifying their actions. But Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, who has written about lying in entrepreneurship, thinks they’re onto something.
“If you can somehow measure harm to others, that is the limit,” Chamorro-Premuzic says. He believes most entrepreneurs tell lies when they think the falsehoods will do no harm. Had Hirshberg failed to get bank financing, the SBA simply wouldn’t have offered the loan guarantee. Had Byrne been caught, his deal with Microsoft would have fallen through. They were largely victimless crimes, wasting little more than someone’s time.
The way Chamorro-Premuzic sees it, the greatest lie we all tell is that we don’t lie. “There’s a reason why we have to all pretend the world is more honest than it actually is,” he says, “and that’s because we’re part of the same world that thrives with at least a certain level of getting away with some deception.” And he says creative people -- the kind of fast-thinking, big-dreaming people who often become entrepreneurs -- tend to lie more than others. The truth, he says, is that people in business expect some kind of transactional lie -- whether it’s from a job applicant, a potential partner, or someone else. “The system is encouraging at least some form of fact distortion, and rewards it,” he says. “If you ask an interviewee if they enjoy working with others and they say, ‘Most of the time I don’t,’ they won’t get brownie points for being honest. You’ll say, ‘This guy is antisocial.’”
So what’s an entrepreneur to do? Simple, says Chamorro-Premuzic: Treat lying as a tool to be used in very particular moments. It cannot result in harm to individuals. It must lead to an opportunity you can genuinely succeed in. And very critically, it cannot become a foundation you build on with other lies. “The brands that people trust, the products that people trust, clearly are created and run and owned by cultures that respect the customer,” he says. “Long-term focus requires honesty.”
Seen this way, a lie is a gamble -- a slight tilting of the odds in a critical moment. But what follows must be truthful, because, as our liars say, that’s the only way to build an honest company.