Category Archives: Business Ethics

Go Ahead, Search Me … and Give Me Better Info

What bothers me isn’t that Orbitz steers Mac users to pricier hotels, as reports; it’s that some people act like that’s somehow illegitimate, unfair, or deceptive.

I say, on the contrary, give people what they like.  Not everybody wants the cheapest hotel available. Many people prefer paying a bit more for something better. And what’s wrong with that?

The report:

Orbitz Worldwide has found that people who use Apple Inc.’s AAPL +0.22% Mac computers spend as much as 30% more a night on hotels, so the online travel agency is starting to show them different, and sometimes costlier, travel options than Windows visitors see.

So, just for the sake of argument, I like interesting restaurants with local and organic food, and I don’t mind paying the bit more that those restaurants cost. Am I mad at Yelp if it shows me those on the top of a search, instead of the fast foods and pizza? The Journal adds:

Orbitz found Mac users on average spend $20 to $30 more a night on hotels than their PC counterparts, a significant margin given the site’s average nightly hotel booking is around $100, chief scientist Wai Gen Yee said. Mac users are 40% more likely to book a four- or five-star hotel than PC users, Mr. Yee said, and when Mac and PC users book the same hotel, Mac users tend to stay in more expensive rooms.

Guessing what people want, based on what we know about them, is not a bad thing to do.  And it’s not like Mac users have to pay more for the same room, on the same night, booked at the same time; it’s a matter of guessing what they want to see. How is this bad?

We all routinely pay different prices for the same thing. We all know that airplane seats — to cite one obvious example — are priced in all different ways. It bugs me that I pay more for the trip I book at the last minute than the one I book in advance, but I don’t blame the airlines for that. And we can get last-minute hotel rooms cheaper, sometimes, than by booking in advance. This is pricing by context and value. I don’t like it when it’s me paying more, but then I always have the option of planning better. Or not going. Right?

I’ve been a Mac user since the beginning, and was a long-time consultant to Apple, although I like Windows too and use both. But I’ve always seen the Mac had some extra connotation. That’s interesting to me, and intriguing for marketing purposes. Like car brands, dining preferences, and fashion. We are what we buy.

How do you feel about this? Are you offended?

Did They Copy Your Idea? Deal With It.

This troubles me. App Developer Says Facebook Stole Idea for “Find Friends Nearby”.

I don’t know the app, haven’t used it, and I’m not a lawyer, but I hate it when people complain about some big company stealing their ideas. Ideas get copied all the time. Have you seen the web? Have you seen books, movies, or TV?

Good ideas get copied. I don’t mean software piracy or plagiarism, which I hate, isn’t legal, but is also inevitable. I do mean reverse engineering and just plain copying good idea. Like movie and fiction formulas that work.  Selling points, tag lines, icons, apps, functionality, features, packaging, design … copycats get around them easily without strictly violating the law.  It’s a fact of life.

Think of the history of high tech in the last generation or so. DOS copied and improved CP/M which copied something else. The original Mac copied and improved Xerox and Windows copied Mac. Lotus 1-2-3 copied and improved Visicalc and Microsoft Excel copied and improved Lotus 1-2-3.

As a writer, I hate it when people just copy my work and pretend they wrote it. But it does happen constantly.

As a software developer and publisher, I hate it when people copy my product’s tag lines and positioning but it happens all the time.

Ethical? You be the judge. Legal? I’m not an attorney, I can’t say. But I will say this: It happens all the time.

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Is This Mad Men Then or Silicon Valley Now?

A lot has happened during my lifetime to give women more and better choices. What you see in the TV drama Mad Men about how hard the business world was for women, back then, is what I remember from those times. So there has been progress.

But damn, let’s not confuse progress towards equality with equality.

Read “Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem” on Mother Jones. It’s good Journalism, not muckraking. You’ll be amazed that this is happening now, and in Silicon Valley. Calendar girls, frat-boy bragging, and general stupidity. But it is. Take my word for it, I know it does.

What? Not in some fictional way back when, but in 2012? Who’s going to believe that?

I am.

I don’t like it. This is bad for all. My suggestions:

  1. Acknowledge that it’s still true.
  2. Speak out against it.
  3. Don’t let it happen in the environments you influence.

What do you think?

Slow and Steady Decline of Trust

This trend really bothers me. Even after the FCC rules on blogging and disclosure, I still get regular offers like this one that was in my email this morning. It was a nicely worded email, with some flattery, but here’s the meat:dollars

I’d love to put together a high-quality article written specifically for the site. There is absolutely no charge for this and no strings attached;  the only thing I would ask in return is that I’m able to include two do follow links to the sites of my choosing within the article – nothing shady or unethical, just one of the professional businesses I freelance for …

What do you think? Is this bad business ethics? Working links into editorial content, for money? Wouldn’t the FCC rules require disclosure? (By the way, that grammar errr

I think it’s sad how pervasive these practices are. This morning I was about to write a post about some software I like, but I stopped, worried that you’d think I’m on the take.

I wonder how much of this is going on, all the time, without disclosure.

For the record, I do get frequent emails offering me guest posts for this blog. In 1,500 posts I’ve had two guest posts that I remember. Occasionally I pass one of those emails on to the marketing team at Palo Alto Software, where some have resulted in good posts on Up and Running. But I consider this blog mine. On the days that I don’t post, I don’t look for a guest post.



Facebook Needs at Least One Woman on Its Board

(Note: I posted this earlier today on the Huffington Post. I’m reposting it here because this is my main blog, and I believe what I wrote, so I want it here too.)

Why would a startup as important as Facebook, run by somebody as young as Mark Zuckerberg, whose users are more than 50 percent women, go into all-important public stock offering with a board of directors composed of seven men?

For no good reason.

Not that these seven don’t make a great group. It includes Peter Thiel, Donald Graham, James Breyer, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreessen, Reed Hastings, and Erskine Bowles. So that’s the founder, several world-class successful entrepreneurs, the CEO of the Washington Post, a venture capitalist, and a former university president who was also co-chair of President Obama’s Commision on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. That’s an excellent group of men.

Still, qualified as they may all be, seven men and no women? After all, the purpose of a board of directors, Wikipedia says is to govern the organization, establish broad policies, review the CEO, and answer to stakeholders for the organization’s performance. That purpose isn’t better served with at least one woman in the seven-member board? I don’t believe that. Do you?

There is research indicating that including women on a board of directors is better business. For background on that, read Why Your Next Board Member Should be a Woman on TechCrunch, or The ‘Terrible Truth’ About Women on Corporate Boards on, just to cite two of many. And, if you like irony, listen to Cheryl Sandberg, Chief Financial Officer of Facebook, in this Ted talk from 16 months ago, worried about under representation of women in the upper ranks of business. She cites a statistic I’ve seen elsewhere, that over the last six years, women have held a static 15-16 percent of c-level corporate jobs and spots on boards of directors.

Frankly, nobody can say there aren’t qualified women available. Search the web. That’s just dumb.

So why?

I was contacted by the group behind the Face It Campaign, at I went to their website, saw the video on YouTube (embedded here), and signed up. They’re not asking for money, just support for what should be obvious.

If change is going to happen, it takes place one step at a time. This seems like a good time to take this step.

(Note: if for any reason the embedded video doesn’t show up here, it’s on YouTube at

User Interface Dark Side: When Deception Works

No ambiguity with this one: the site is named…

a pattern library with the specific goal of naming and shaming deceptive user interfaces (aka “dark patterns”) and the companies that use them.

… and author Harry Brignull, in his List Apart post Dark Patterns: Deception vs. Honesty in UI Design, calls them “evil web designers. You can see the list in the illustration here: bait and switch, forced continuity, road block, all of them tried-and-false techniques to deceive users. He writes:

perhaps you’ve never thought about it before but all of the guidelines, principles, and methods that ethical designers use to design usable websites can be easily subverted to benefit business owners at the expense of users. It’s actually quite simple to take our understanding of human psychology and flip it over to the dark side.

“But it tests well,” he points out, as a good reason to use deceptive techniques.

Dark patterns tend to perform very well in A/B and multivariate tests simply because a design that tricks users into doing something is likely to achieve more conversions than one that allows users to make an informed decision.

Just reading the categories on the wiki-like dark patterns site, you recognize most of these techniques. Hidden costs, misdirection, forced continuity … we’re all exposed to most of them most of the time. Call them dark patterns, write about evil web designers, and your position on the ethics are pretty clear. It works for me.

I still believe that business ethics win over the long term. Good business practices keep customers loyal and tricks get caught often enough to impact business.

And we all say that, right? Are you doing it, in your business?

On the Recruiting Value of Slogans and Bluster — Not

Is this just me? The message says “looking for ball busting MBAs to join my firm. (no wimps) great opportunity to kick tail in renewable energy.” Does that make you shudder?

It reminds me of big-company sales mentality where quality is measured by bravado and the customer is a tool to be conquered. It smacks of a now-obsolete world in which fake enthusiasm is an important currency.

It’s hard to imagine that this kind of message works. Ask with slogans and bluster, and you’ll get people who like slogans and bluster.

New Game: Social Media Snooping vs. Social Media Cleansing

The other shoe dropping: Business Insider posted This Company Will Expose All Your Most Embarrassing Online Moments a few days ago. It’s about a service company that helps employers by doing a social-media online background check on a potential employee.

It was more than two years ago that I first saw a business plan for a social media cleaning service, meaning a company that would clean up all those dumb and embarrassing things college kids posted on Facebook, when they wake up to the job market and the implications. (Aside: that one was done by Kai Davis, who is now doing marketing for Palo Alto Software).

My favorite comment in this context:

What part of the word publishing don’t you understand?

I’m traveling as I write this, waiting for my car to get new brakes while on a driving trip to California. While I was driving this morning I heard a major radio station commercial for a social media cleaning service. Sorry, I forget its name, I’d like to mention it.

So the contest is on: the social media scraping service, telling your next employer every dumb comment and picture you posted online; vs. the social media cleaning service, helping you get all of that off of the web.

Shall we take bets? Who wins?

(Image: heal the bay/Flickr CC)

Those Sad Stories of Elephants and Mice in Startups and High Tech

Big squashes little. The elephant steps on a mouse and kills it, but never even notices. We stop on ants on the sidewalk without realizing.

You can probably think of a lot of these cases.

I had a friend who rode a big wave in the late 1980s with a PC-compatible add-on board that enabled a PC to send a fax as easily as printing a document. It was a huge win. Millions of dollars were made. Then Microsoft added a fax facility into a new version of Windows. Pop, crackle, snap.

At about the same time, there was a company in Canada that had a huge business selling compression software that worked with PCs. Then Microsoft bundled compression into a new version of Windows. Pop, crackle, snap.

I read iCloud Communications sues Apple for obvious reasons the other day on Engadget. Pop, crackle, snap.

It’s part of life in the world of startups and high tech. Big companies kill little companies without even knowing, much less caring. No law against it. No reason not to?

What do you think?

(Illustration: via Flickr cc)

True Story: Why I Lied to You When You Called

I’m a bit embarrassed about this story. It’s about lying. You’ll see if you read on that it wasn’t bad lying, not tricking anybody for any bad reason. But it’s a true story, so I’m posting it here because 1.) it might be useful to somebody; and 2.) I’m curious about how often it happens.

Did you ever see the television commercial where the one small business owner changes his voice on the phone to sound like different people? I did something like that for years. I answered the business phone as Evan Rocha, not Tim Berry. (If you know me well you’ll guess how I came up with that name; and if not, it doesn’t matter. )

It started when I was a one-man company. I’d done the software and the manual and the advertising, and I also took the calls. I didn’t answer the phone as me because I felt like that would be bad for business. Right or wrong, I thought there’d be an image problem, or a lack of confidence. So I became Evan.

Later, even after the company grew up, long past the early days when I had to take calls, I still took tech support and sales calls often. I did it sometimes for special case problems, sometimes to fill in when we were understaffed, and sometimes because the phone got past the fourth ring and I wanted it answered.

I like talking to customers. I always have. And it’s something every business owner should do, and especially software or web entrepreneurs. You should really talk to your customers regularly. But having the president answer the phone feels weird, so I kept using the name Evan.

It’s been several years since I was last on the phone as Evan, so I thought it would be okay to share that now. And if you happen to be one of the customers I talked to as Evan, I didn’t mean to be deceitful and I apologize for lying. It just reduced the awkwardness. But yes, that was me.

Are you an entrepreneur, or small business owner, who’s done that? I’m curious about how many others there are.