Startups need to use everything in their arsenal to grow. A big part of it is playing in the grey area between moral and immoral. Do you create fake users and comments to portray an active community? Do you reply to posts on Craigslist trying to get visitors to your site? It’s also much easier to play in this area when you’re a startup - you’re most likely too small to be noticed and even if you are the press won’t spend much time on it. Google already gets a ton of flak every time someone complains about losing business due to a search engine update, imagine what would happen if a Google employee was caught spamming Craigslist.
It’s important for all companies, and especially startups, to test these moral boundaries but there’s no clear answer of what the boundaries actually are, just shades of gray which will vary from company to company and from team to team. I believe that until you get some resistance you need to keep on pushing otherwise you never know that you’re doing enough.
At Makers Alley, our lesson came when we wanted to increase the amount of makers signing up. We decided to create pages for all makers in an area and then email each of them a link to “claim” their page. In order to make the pages look appealing we took images and descriptions from their individual sites. The results were mixed: as expected most emails didn’t even get a response but the ones that did had a wide range of reactions. Some of the makers gladly claimed their page and loved that their content was automatically pulled. Yet others were pissed that we used their copyright images on our own site without their permission. We weren’t comfortable knowingly upsetting some users and quickly removed the images from the unclaimed pages. We continued running a few other tests to try to maximize the “sign up rate per email” and ended up settling on a simple email that asks the makers to sign up and getting rid of the claim functionality. But without making the misstep in the beginning we wouldn’t have been able to settle on this approach. I do worry that less scrupulous companies have a higher chance of success but I can only take actions I’m comfortable with.