Ethical Business Practices and Your Stomach


The Trouble With Business

I’m in an evolutionary stage with a few of my businesses, and I want to go over something that’s been on my mind as a result.

For many, the concept of ethics seems to fade away as soon as they enter the boardroom/cubicle/home office. “It’s just business” is the prevailing excuse for doing things that they would not do in normal, non-business society. No need to worry – it’s a consequence-free environment, so long as you play by the rules of the business world, which are very different from those everyone plays by the rest of the time.

I can understand why this ethical segmentation takes place.

First, the main point of starting a business for most people is to make money. This is the be-all, end-all purpose behind starting such an enterprise, and therefore any cost should be paid in order to make a profit.

Second, since specialization is at a peak, most people will never have to be the sole morally-loose sprocket in a given machine. Each and every employee is just a piece of a greater whole, and it’s easy to convince yourself that there is someone higher up who is assuming the moral burden of decisions made.

Third, because everyone else seems to be making money in unscrupulous ways, it’s easier to convince yourself that cutting corners and short-shrifting your ethics THIS time won’t be so bad. How else can you compete?

Unfortunately, this points provide the justification, but not a solution to the problems that result from the massive amount of unethical business behavior out there.

What Can Be Done?

If you’re running a business, you likely have customers or clients, and the first step is simple: do not do anything to these people that you would not want done to you.

I’ll give you an example (one that started a bit of a debate on Twitter the other day): I hate pop-ups on websites. I simply can’t stand them. If a site has one, I’ll never visit again (if I like the content, I’ll just read articles from my RSS feed reader). To me they have all the noxious-charm of a TV commercial but with less content. The message I see is “yes I will give you stuff, but it’s not free, your time is mine.”

Seth Godin would call this ‘interruption marketing,’ as opposed to the preferable ‘permission marketing.’

There is evidence that having a pop-up on your site can increase your newsletter subscription rate, ebook purchase rate, or whatever else you want to advertise. But is it worth it?

Why would I do something to my readers that I know annoys me? Am I better than them in some way that they should have to stomach it and I should not?

Of course not, so I don’t use pop-ups. Same with banner ads and text ads. This site is ad-free, in fact. I don’t even run reviews – I started a separate review site that my readers can take or leave so that those who want to can check them out, but those who don’t want to be inundated with reviews can ignore them without effort.

Why all this trouble and potential missed opportunities and advantages?

Because I don’t think I would have the same enthusiasm for this project if I didn’t think I was building something the way it should be built. My ethics aren’t yours, of course, and everyone needs to figure out where their personal lines are drawn, but crossing those lines has consequences.


My enthusiasm, plus the good will of my non-annoyed readers, is a huge advantage borne by this method of running a business.

My readership numbers could be higher if I used every trick in the book, but my clickthrough and participation rates are off the charts because people are more likely to get involved if they don’t feel pressured and put-upon by their host.

I wanted interaction with my readers, and I get it. All I had to do was treat them the way I’d want to be treated.

I know, the Golden Rule is no big moral revelation, but for some reason it seems to be almost completely unknown in the business world. There are many strong professionals out there who aren’t living up to their potential because they ignore their personal ethics when on the job.

I used to wrestle with this, thinking it a weakness that I couldn’t stomach doing “what needed to be done” in order to maximize my numbers, but I’ve come to realize that letting my gut lead the way is what allows me to lead the lifestyle I do.

I can operate a handful of ventures at any given time without stressing out or feeling weighed down by them. In fact, I wake up excited every day, looking forward to what I’ll GET to do for work! My businesses bring value to me and my clients/customers/readers, and that brings me a great deal of satisfaction.

And you know what? The money follows.

If you’ve got a business or job that isn’t bringing you joy along with cash, you’re selling yourself short.

If you wouldn’t be comfortable telling your base all about every decision you make, every tactic you use and every scheme you come up with, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

Avoid burnout and work to LIVE, not just for a living. Don’t sell out your base to make a buck, build a base that will gladly help you make money as you help them achieve their goals.

Live ethically to live happily.


  1. Ethical business practices are completely rational: they are good for the bottom line long-term. They build positive word of mouth. They keep customers coming back (customer acquisition cost is by far the highest cost of most businesses).

    Being unethical, looking for the quick buck may make some people money fast in the short run, but where will they turn when all bridges are burnt, when all customers have left and warned off anyone else of doing business with them?

    A lot of people will chose instant gratification at the cost of long term sustainability of a business, but it will inevitably be their downfall.

    • And unfortunately, there’s no convincing most people who are acting unethically that they are doing so. All we can do is succeed wildly and show by example the benefits of running an ethical business.

  2. We normally get into trouble when we try to rush things. It works with personal development, in sales, in business, in work. People end up working 16 hour days because someone wanted to get an account so he or she promises the client unrealistic results and forces employees to carry the burden of the high speed follow through. Its a vicious cycle.

    Great post Colin! This sure affirms the changes I’m making for my work and business.

  3. Hey Colin- what a killer post! And something I was needing to hear. As I’ve been getting a couple of different projects rolling recently, I’ve also been struggling between whether to use “every trick in the book” or not. I completely agree that “interruption marketing” is annoying as hell. You’ve convinced me to avoid it.

  4. Although the Golden Rule isn’t a moral revelation, like you said, it’s still incredibly valuable. It’s largely ignored and that’s a shame.

    By the way, I hate popups and popins as well. Especially because I use a small netbook and sometimes exiting out of them is extremely difficult.

    Great post and thanks for putting your thoughts on this out there.

    • Tom’s has done a great job branding themselves AND creating a situation where people come to them because of what they believe (rather than forcing a questionable pseudo-ideology down everyone’s throat).

  5. Such eloquently stated, Colin, as always. I agree with your points that subscription rates could be higher if you just followed by the book all the tips of the blogger’s trade (or any online medium, for that matter). But if it just doesn’t gel with what you personally like or believe in, what’s the point?

    The whole point of “this” was to share with others your passion and hopefully, this will bring you continued joy (and perhaps some income even). You’re already doing wonderful branding yourself in your own unique way. No need to follow the rules of other people. After all, “best practices” aren’t always best for all practices. I know that through much experience … it just doesn’t always work out like that, nor was it intended to.

    Oh, those crazy pop ups! Or those text boxes that pop up and then follow you while you’re trying to scroll down and read the content, inviting (more like blasting) their message to “subscribe to this blog NOW!” … not very fun. >_< Makes me want to digital ninja kick them. Thanks for keeping your site ad-free!

    • Exactly: what’s the point if you’re not having a good time?

      I actively do the opposite of what those boxes tell me. If they ever catch on and tell me NOT to subscribe, I may be in trouble.

  6. I’ve always had so much respect for the way you conduct your various enterprises on the web. There are no pressures associated with this site. I don’t know if you follow Ramit Sethi but he was recently promoting the hell out of his make money program. I and apparently others felt he was selling out and shortly after he sent out an email apologizing for his actions. He let potential dollars get in the way of providing true quality content to his readers.
    If I visit a blog that is obviously new and it is covered with google ads, etc, there is no chance of me subscribing to it. These people are trying to cash out before they even have anything good going. Like Gary Vaynerchuk says bust you ass now, provide killer content and the money will eventually follow.
    Props Collin,


  7. LOL. I think I may have started that twitter thread you referred to… it made one blogger think and remove ads from her photos because of the conversation.

    I have always stayed true to myself from day one… I wouldn’t do anything different in business just because, “it’s business.” That’s retarded. You may not get the spike you need, but slow and steady wins the race. Do what you love and the money/people will follow.

    I can relate to the last line especially, “work to live!” That’s what we’re doing… livin’ it up! Kudos.

  8. Hi Colin! I noticed there’s been a lot of buzz on ethic in business lately, esp. in my country (finally!). Some of the sources are really insightful (like one of the books on my shelf, “The Diamond Cutter” by Geshe Michael Roach), some of them are complicated/unrealistic/boring. Yours is a get-to-the-point essence stuff. Appreciate it.

  9. Great post Collin-

    I think some business owners get a taste for fame and fortune and operate on a fear driven auto-pilot. Fear of losing it all will drive them to do things morally questionable. They wont stop, just for a second, to assess the impacts to their customers, as they are so hell-bent on keeping everything they have.

    I agree with you Collin, I’d rather be morally balanced… It’s easier to look people in eyes when you don’t screw them over constantly.

  10. Really, really good points you raise here, Colin. Actually, your style of doing business was the reason why I signed up for your newsletter, the first I ever did subscribe to. Plus, a totally valid rant on pop-ups. Incredibly annoying, and using them generally is an easy way to self-disqualify your site from further reading…

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