Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Blurred Lines

An Interview with a Young Entrepreneur

Not everyone is willing to be as honest as is this young man, who has worked for several Silicon Valley start-ups. He is now in sales at one new venture while simultaneously laying the groundwork for his own company. Out of respect for his candor, we have omitted his name. We have also changed the names of the companies involved.

In the start-up environment, where employees can work 60, 70 or even 80 hours a week, it is often hard to determine what is company time and what is personal time. If employees bring work home—using their own computers and supplies—is it reasonable for them to use the company’s tool, such as e-mail or copy machine, for their personal needs? When employees are moonlighting or developing their own ventures, these distinctions become even more significant and touch on conflicts of interest. Here’s what one young entrepreneur had to say about these questions:

While I was at a local company, some of the engineering founders had left the company to start their own business. One guy, who had been a friend of mine, gave me a call and asked if I was interested in helping them out a bit. They needed consultation, market research and sales stuff from me. This was a totally volunteer project, which I did on my own time, and their product was not competitive with our company's.

One late afternoon, I was at my company writing up a whole marketing plan and organizational structure for my friend’s company. I put together an e-mail with all the information, but I made a mistake. I intended to send the e-mail to my distribution list for the new company, but instead I sent the e-mail to everyone at my company.

The next day, I was called to a high-level meeting including the CEO. He was concerned that this other company was a competitor. My stance was that it was not, and that I was doing this consulting on my own time. No one had ever complained that I was not getting my work done for our own company.

The end result was that I was suspended for a day. My company objected to my using their e-mail system for private work, and they objected to the time at which I did it. I got caught, but I can tell you I know many people who work on multiple projects. I think the question comes down to when you’re working on [outside projects] and how much time you’re spending on them.

I can’t say I’m a 100 percent ethical person; I’m pretty entrepreneurial. I don’t think it’s right to use company property for other things besides work because your company has bought stuff for you in faith that you’re using it for company projects. Even though everyone does it, I strongly believe that if you have something else going, you should use your own property.

Still, you do have a right to work on other projects. If you have standard hours—say, 8 to 5—it would have to be before or after that. But any time before or after should be your call. The lines are drawn when you start using the company’s intellectual property. For example, I’m in sales, and I could easily use my customers here for the company I’m starting.

For me, it comes down to if I’m going to be hurting my employer, stealing their intellectual property, then I don’t do it. If it will help my own venture and not hurt the company I'm working for, then I look at each individual situation…. There are two ways to think about it. One is: This is the company's customer and we have relationship because of the company, so I can’t trade on that relationship for my own gain. But another is: The customer has needs our company's products meet and other needs as well. Filling the other needs won’t hurt or affect our company at all. If I have built a personal relationship with this customer, I don’t see any problem with solving another issue for them. I mean, whose basic customer is it–who owns the customer?

There are two issues I look at. 1) Is [my pursuing the customer] economically hurting my company—is it competing with my company? And 2) Are my dealings with a customer taking time away from my time as an employee? If the answer to those two questions is no, I think it’s perfectly legitimate.