How to Avoid the 7 Deadly Business Sins of the 21st Century

As an entrepreneur, it is both a privilege and a tremendous responsibility to build a company–often from mere ideation all the way to IPO.

A successful and fulfilling life, much like a business, offers many roads by which to travel. Some are filled to the brim with heartache yet, miraculously, overwhelming joy. While others fall prey to the fiery pit of misery and self-effacing failure. Truth be told, most of the outcomes have to do with the choices we make; and subsequently how we choose to react to things that are thrown our way.

So, if you’re going to spend half your adulthood building a business, how can you avoid turning both your soul and your life’s work over to the devil? Because as much as modern culture–obsessed with relativism and moral indifference–will tell you the two can be compartmentalized, I beg to differ.

Deadly business sins#1–Unconscious bias

We do not choose how, when, where, and in which environment we grow up. But as we mature into self-actualized adults, it is in our best interest to question beliefs and biases we have developed about people, places, and things. Fortunately for us, we don’t live in the 1950s anymore in terms of many of the “isms”–racism, sexism, you name it. It’s not perfect, but we have evolved. Subsequently, providing a platform for discourse about the modern day workplace, and how our “unconscious bias” affects our ability to grow and thrive, is one of the most important ways to avoid the killer behavior of building a one-dimensional company. Kool-aid was always bad for you.

The antidote? A variety of professional training resources exist along the lines of “diversity in the workplace” and “uncovering hidden bias.” Do yourself and your organization a favor and invest in one or two of these trainings. If you’re a tiny startup, then (in the very least) circulate reading materials or talk openly about how to avoid unconscious bias as you grow and scale your company.

#2–Culture clash

Companies are made up of people. Not money. Not products. Not press mentions. Nothing will kill the soul of a company faster and more insidiously (particularly in the early days) than an adversarial culture where humans are pitted against one another, not supported, or not made to feel like they are an integral part of the whole darn thing.

I’m not saying successful, revenue-generating companies always have “kum ba yah” cultures, but what I am saying is they should strive for harmony. Otherwise, and eventually, the best and brightest will leave; the truly evolved professional wouldn’t waste his or her time in a toxic culture that doesn’t value people.

#3–Product-first narrative

A few months ago I had the pleasure of attending a small networking dinner in San Francisco where Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor and author of The Dragonfly Effect, Jennifer Aaker, entertained us with a presentation on storytelling. As one of the leading minds on the subject, she had some interesting insights. I walked away with one key point:

“As a company, the customer should be the hero of your story.”

Ever taken note of that annoying guy or gal at a party that seemingly can’t stop talking about themselves? This particularly despicable habit happens mostly in large, ego-inflated, urban city environments; and it’s generally a turn off to everyone within earshot.

Well, newsflash: talking about your product incessantly as the central component of your narrative will have a similar effect. Don’t build your company’s story around your product or service, build it around the customers you are serving…because this is the real test of whether or not you’ve built something worthwhile. If customers have positive stories about you, then you’ve won.

#4–C-suite ego

A C-suite that doesn’t seem to value the customer or employees as an integral part of the business process is often left with high turnover rates and low customer retention. Why? Because they presuppose that holding a C-title makes them immune to “needing to relate to real people.”

Now, there are plenty of companies that have built empires on this premise; but I argue that in the very near future we will see a somewhat public revolt against this type of leadership. Successful organizations will rely more heavily on the concepts of collaboration and inclusion, void of ego and narcissistic behavior.

Plus, ego just isn’t a good look (see deadly business sin #3). A great book on this subject: “Small is Beautiful: economics as if people mattered.”

#5–Review-avoidant behavior

According to New York Times bestselling author and world’s preeminent data expert Bill Tancer: “Eighty percent of consumers now consult online reviews before making a purchase.” In his latest book, Everyone’s a Critic, Mr. Tancer explores the wild world of online reviews and how businesses often suffer and succeed depending on how they handle reviews.

The moral of the story: while online reviews may be difficult to stomach, it’s absolutely mandatory to be aware of their contents and develop a strategy (of which ignoring them may be one) to figure out how to turn them into competitive advantage. Simply avoiding them and pretending they don’t exist–much like that weird looking, Brazil-shaped mole that has crept up on your behind–could be the death of you.

#6–Innovation-proof thinking

You know what will kill a company’s credibility faster than a sex scandal? The mindset that innovation is no longer needed because the arrow is moving up and to the right. The millisecond an organization believes they have “made it” is the very moment in which the decline will start.

Successful entrepreneurs wake up thinking: “How can I innovate?” They don’t wait; they just go. How do you avoid innovation-proof thinking, which basically means you believe your company depends on a continual process of innovation to keep generating revenue? Just drum up this vision: Blockbuster and Best Buy walk into a bar.

#7–Digital immigrant disparity

22 year-olds fresh out of college are a legitimate pain in the ass for a variety of reasons; I get it. We were all there once. But you know what is ten times WORSE than a know-it-all college grad that can type a sentence faster than you can say “Tinder”? A forty or fifty year old that refuses to maintain a basic level of understanding about emerging technology because they believe they are past that point.

Nothing will kill–I mean KILL–your company faster than too many digital immigrants (translation: people that did not grow up with at least a cell phone from the age of ten and didn’t own their first PC until they were 35) and too few digital natives. You need a balance of hot-shot youngsters and wisdom-filled professionals to level the playing field.

Too far in any one direction and you’ll become either a detested “brogrammer culture” or you will shrivel up and die on the vine of “too little too late.”

Do yourself, your business, and your soul a favor and try to avert the 7 deadly business sins. In the very least, you’ll get an A for effort, and probably sleep much better at night too.