The startup journal VIII: the invisible ethical line for a startup entrepreneur

Seven years ago when I was studying at the journalism school at U.C. Berkeley, one of the most important classes we took was Law and Ethics. Today, those ethical rules on writing objectively still stick with me.

I’m crystal clear on my professional protocols as a writer to make my stories balanced and well-supported with facts, data and quotes from credible sources and independent research whenever I write.

Right now I’m also an entrepreneur. In the five-month journey operating our tech new media platform, it has been a whole other learning opportunity for me, whether by self-teaching or learning from my colleagues and other startup entrepreneurs.

I have been to many offline events and gatherings in Beijing where entrepreneurs talked about hiring process, financing, company operations and management. Not a single time did I hear anyone speak about business ethics.

My own moment for reflection has arrived, as I ask myself, where’s the ethical line for a entrepreneur? Especially for those of us who are both writing and trying to build a business model from it. Our longterm goal is to fill a gap by profiling startups in China, which are often neglected by mainstream media.

It’s not an easy answer. We are trying to do what we think is right. For a small team of five writers and three editors, it’s difficult to go after the thousands of startups in China. We ran a campaign recently asking Chinese startups to pitch their stories to us.

But we didn’t sell ourselves short. We made it clear that we are only going to write about the ones with interesting business models or the ones have proven their market value to some extent. We are not doing PR for them. All of our writing is based on objective interviews and independent research.

I often tell my colleagues that despite the fact that we are still a young media startup, our editorial standards are not weaker than those of foreign agencies. We are certainly learning from the best reporting while gradually establishing our own styles and strengths.

So the ethical line is clearer. As we hold our ground as an independent media platform, we can observe the flaws and ethical breaches in some companies. In general, I admire most of the startup entrepreneurs I’ve encountered.

Many of those CEOs and founders have become the faces of their own companies. The story of how they’ve come to do what they do and the vision they have to make an impact and change an industry are often very compelling.

But there always are the ones who oversell their stories. Sometimes PR staff misrepresent the company, too. It’s a shame that sincerity or uniqueness is often missing in this context. And no one wants to consume boring fast food forever. One antidote is to speak from the heart in order to get your stories printed and to move your audience.

But you can’t tell the same story repeatedly. Try to say something new each time. Even if it used to be a juicy story, if you tell it over and over, it becomes leftover food.

I’m learning to not to blush when I need to speak up about our startup and I’ve tried to speak from the heart instead of making phony advertisements. I’m listening to and learning from Kara Swisher’s podcast on Re/code where she interviews entrepreneurs.

I’ve noticed that she would give her interviewees enough time to let them introduce themselves and their business models. I’m not sure when she worked for the Wall Street Journal that she would use her brand to help other companies sell themselves so directly. But I respect her because she still asks the sharpest questions. She has her ethics.

Ethical breaches are common among Chinese companies. They sometimes bribe reporters to only write positive things about them. Bribes vary from a few hundred yuan in red envelopes to more valuable gifts such as smartphones.

Any writer should be aware that the moment you accept the red envelope, you are trading your independence away. You are losing a piece of your soul because the core value as a writer is to be able to write compelling stories objectively.

Logically, it doesn’t make sense to print a story saying only good things about a company. There isn’t a single startup that doesn’t struggle while it’s growing. There isn’t a single business that doesn’t meet with competition and challenges. If you try to fool the readers you’re only making a fool of yourself.

That’s where the ethical line shines, as we advise our colleagues not to take red envelopes. Because we believe that if we insist upon what we do and try to write the most insightful stories on the Chinese IT industry, we’ll be recognized and respected one day.

That’s what I’m telling my coworkers. Even today we all live a modest life as a startup team. With courage and effort, money and fame may even follow in the future.

As long as you know where the invisible ethical line is. And hold on to it.

(Top photo from Larisa-K on

Wu Nan

Nan is the Founder and Editor in Chief of AllTechAsia. She is an award-winning journalist with honors from Foreign Press Association in New York and Hong Kong Journalists Association. For years she worked for top-notch media outlets including South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. She co-founded the NetEase Annual Economist Conference (NAEC), a leading economic forum in China. She holds a master's degree in Journalism at U.C. Berkeley and is a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Write to her: nan[at]

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