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This article was contributed by Varun Kabra, CMO of Proton.

Consumers today are not just concerned with the product they buy, but with the mission and values that a company represents. In 2020, ethical consumer spending in the U.K. topped  £100 bn, for the first time. Across the apparel and food industries, as well as beauty and tech, ethical startups and incumbents alike have begun addressing the growing demand for products that minimize the negative impact of consumerism on both the environment and society. 

However, the same can’t be said for many digital products we use every day, such as email and messaging apps, consumer-facing software, and cloud storage. Whether we’re talking about privacy concerns, data harvesting or anticompetitive monopolies, many of the world’s biggest technology players fall far short of the standards consumers expect. Last year, a PWC survey found that data security was the most important factor in gaining global consumer trust. But despite the efforts of numerous privacy-focused startups, the big players are still actively resisting change. 

Mission and purpose

Developing ethical digital products requires a radically different approach to product design and business. People want to know that their money will support an important cause, or at the very least, won’t be used to make a situation worse. As a result, people are seeking out companies that have clear and consistent missions. Companies like Patagonia, for instance, have seen huge success with building their company and branding around their sustainable goals. Similarly, The Body Shop’s cruelty-free and fair trade mission is an important selling point for their customers. However, it is not enough to have these ambitions. Consumers that buy into your mission expect you to follow through. 

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Part of following through means ensuring your mission does not have any unintended consequences and requires founders to think long term. Facebook wanted to build a more connected world, which certainly sounds like an admirable goal. But it didn’t consider the implications of a connected world without privacy protections. Having battled mass protests, scandals, and a gradual decline in users over the last year, Facebook has suffered a huge reputational blow. Last year was a bit of a tipping point. After witnessing the ramifications of Big Tech’s careless approach to privacy protection, hundreds of millions of people signed up for private privacy-first digital products and services like ProtonMail, Signal and Ecosia. 

For good, for profit

Acting as an ethical tech company requires a company to take additional steps, such as proving to people that you are living up to your stated mission. The answer here is transparency. Being clear about who owns and runs the company is essential. Making your product or service open source is equally as important as it enables anyone who understands code to verify how the product works for themselves and flag any concerns to the wider user community. 

Technology is complicated, and people need to trust the companies with whom they share their data. With scandal after scandal hitting tech giant after tech giant, people are both more interested in ethical digital products than ever before and more wary of committing their data to tech companies. Consequently, keeping your products or services open source works on two levels: it keeps the company honest about its products and builds trust with the user community. 

Another part of running an ethical company is ensuring your messaging is aligned with the services you deliver. Apple’s privacy-themed marketing campaigns are popular with users. But what definition of “privacy” is Apple using for these ads? Is it promising that your data belongs only to you? Or is it promising that your data only belongs to you and Apple, and that it won’t sell your data to nameless third parties — for now? Apple has identified people’s desire to protect their data and have claimed it as part of their mission but to keep consumer trust, the company must deliver transparently.

However, the bedrock of an ethical tech company is its community. Actively engaging with a community that is centered around your products and values is a critical part of successfully operating a for-good, for-profit business. It is time-consuming to take on feedback, but talking to the user community and answering their questions builds community trust. On a more practical level, this dialogue helps flag any policy and technical issues. Community engagement can also help a company continue to grow as it adds to its online presence, and can help to steer the company towards decisions that align with user interests. 

Monetizing and scaling ethical digital products

To thrive, ethical digital product founders and startups must always have the interests of its users top of mind, aligning their desires with the business’s goals. This is not always simple, but protecting users’ interests is essential in establishing long-term growth for ethical digital companies. For instance, our mission at Proton is based on protecting user privacy. If we were to ever compromise on that, our business goes out the window. We keep our users’ interest in privacy at the center of every decision we make, and our long-term growth has demonstrated this works. 

Aligning user interest and business interest also doesn’t necessarily mean compromising on financial interest or ethical goals. Financial stability and growth are intrinsically tied to delivering people the best possible solution for their value-driven need. Where privacy is concerned, for example, gone are the days when the only option is running an app or service for free, building up a user base as quickly as possible and harvesting data to monetize. People have realized that subscriptions or similarly transparent revenue streams represent a more ethical and sustainable business model. 

There has never been a better time to get started. Ethical product sales are at an all-time high, and consumers are looking to spend in more thoughtful ways. There is a reason for the surge of big tech campaigns focused on privacy and ethical use of data, or the massive growth of companies like Proton, DuckDuckGo and Brave. The demand is there. The onus is now on startups to rise to it. 

Varun Kabra is the CMO of Proton.

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