The Startup
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The Startup

Yes, Your Startup Is Political.

Photo Credit: BBC.com

With the cacophony of election-related opinions blasting your social media and inboxes for the next few days, I had initially decided not to publish an article this week. After all, what more could be added to an already crowded discussion about Election Day 2020 and potential days of uncertainty ahead?

Well, that was my feeling until I noticed that within my startup friend circles there was one recurring question that founders, CEOs, board members, investors, and even individual employees of startups persistently are bringing up: Should my company take a political stance?

My answer is a YES.

Which Side Are You On?

This question of ‘Should my company take a political stance?’ is not new. Startup tech companies, and tech companies more broadly, have been generally reticent to acknowledge politics exist at all. Instead tech leaders have regularly sought a middle group or apolitical position — one that does not attempt to poke a political bear that could draw attention and impede a growth-at -all-cost mindset. This is a rational stance for a startup CEO to take. After all, it’s in our most boom startups and innovation where a new generation of society-changing tech companies emerged during a period of economic growth and political stability in the US.

But the political calamity of the 2016 Presidential Election kicked off a series of culture shaking movements in the US, resulting in public upheaval and outcries from people of all backgrounds. Very few have kept their opinions on hot button political and cultural issues silent. Rather, there is a shared sense of responsibility to stand-up and make your opinions known. In 2020, particularly as we venture closer to Election Day, the action of remaining silent feels like a deafening form of status-quo complacency.

Folks in the tech community are not immune to the political and social happenings taking place around them. To the contrary, many tech employees have begun to publicly protest and voice their stance on political matters — pushing for the leaders of their companies and the company itself to ‘pick a side’. However, the CEO and founder responses to both employee and public pressures have varied.

And yet, those CEOs and founders (and the startups and established tech companies they lead) are in powerful positions of privilege to voice opinions on the most critical political and social issues facing our society. Startups individually and as a collective possess a tremendous amount of cultural reach and financial resources that many in the US could only dream of mustering for the specific purpose of influencing the world. That tremendous privilege beckons for action.

Startups Take a Stance

As political rhetoric and polarization have intensified in the past few weeks, political positioning in Silicon Valley and the broader tech community has begun to burst into public view. Recent reporting from Erin Griffith and Nathaniel Popper of the New York Times illuminate the complex terrain that CEOs, Founders and tech startup investors are navigating when deciding to take a political stance in the upcoming Presidential Election.

On one side of the spectrum, the cryptocurrency platform Coinbase took a public stance against employees engaging in any social issues or politics within the workplace. And on the other side, through a somewhat internal democratic process, the CEO of receipt management platform Expensify distributed a message to 10,000 customers promoting a clear political stance: a vote for Donald Trump instead of Joe Biden for President is a threat to democracy.

Ultimately, what both examples show is that the question we should be asking ourselves is not “Is our startup political?’ but rather ‘How should our startup be political?

We have reached a point of inevitability where our leaders — in technology and across all industries — need to dip their toe into political matters. Let’s be real, Coinbase’s act to claim ‘no-politics’ is still a political act — it’s taking a stand. You might disagree with it, but it is still a political stance. The same can be said for Expensify. The world will not end because of their stances, but their employees and customers will respond accordingly.

Photo Credit: Valeriy / Protocol

How to Take a Political Stance

Now, if you’re a leader of a tech startup (big or small), the fact that this political inevitability has come to pass does not actually help you figure out how to traverse such a heated and complex situation. In other words, how does a startup CEO or founder take a political stand?

Here are nine points of consideration that you may find helpful:

  1. Don’t Avoid the Difficult Conversation — You and your company would be an outlier if the discussion of politics and social movements has not already been a point of debate within your executive team, inner circle and/or board members. That’s a good thing. Avoidance of these topics altogether gives the impression that people’s work-lives are fully disconnected from the politics that impact their personal-lives. That said, it’s likely not the most productive situation to have politics leak into every executive team conversation. Consider setting aside a specific time for your leadership team to discuss politics and how they intersect with your company, your customers, your team and your service or product. What do they think about the current political environment and what is the company’s responsibility as part of it? At least creating the space for the conversation will inform you on what your top lieutenants are thinking and offer a space for key employees to have the opinions heard.
  2. Capture Team Insights — Don’t just capture the opinions and thoughts of your closest colleagues. Capture the insights of your entire team. Consider using an online tool to solicit anonymous information about team members’ feelings on the current political situation. Even consider asking them to imagine what it would look like for a company like your own to take a political stance on a social issue or a candidate. Although you may not take the democratic approach that Expensify did in determining how to respond to the current political situation of the Presidential Election, your process of capturing information will better inform you of trends in your team’s sentiments. However, soliciting info from your team will put further pressure on you to do/say something. Do not ask people questions and then do nothing with their insights. At best, people will think you’ve ignored them, and at worst, you could create a breakdown in internal trust.
  3. Create a Framework — As you analyze and think about your inner circle’s and broader team’s opinions, take a pause and consider how you will approach future decisions related to taking a public position on other, future political situations. Such trends in decision-making are the future, so beginning to map out a framework for determining specific outcomes or reactions will help you not only make future decisions but to also ensure consistency with those decisions. It is also a hell of a lot easier to deal with really challenging, uncomfortable problems if you have some kind of road map in place beforehand. For example, what specific triggers would need to take place for you to make a public statement? Are there specific issues that would trigger certain responses? What types of communication are most appropriate for your company and audience? How much will you factor in company team member sentiments? How will you react to responses from your customers, team, the public? Any framework you develop now will evolve over time, but it is certainly more helpful to evolve a framework now than to have to build from scratch in the future.
  4. A Key Consideration — Regardless of how you collect insights from your team or create a decision making framework, be sure to consider the question: What is the kind of society where your customers, team and product or services thrive? A world in which your customers and team are oppressed or repressed will wipe out your company. You definitely care about your customers and team — so taking a stance on candidates or specific policy issues that impact their well being should be a key factor in how you take stances on political matters. In other words, you would most certainly stand up against a candidate or policy that would potentially threaten the success of or existence of your company’s service or product, so why not similarly defend the people that build, maintain and use your service or product? A great example of this notion is the tech community’s shared backlash to the Trump administration’s various restrictions and bans on immigration.
  5. Make a Decision — As I have tried to articulate here, you should not be grappling with the question of If we are political?, but rather How will we control or express our position on political matters? As such, it is decision time. Even if you choose to do or say nothing about the current political environment, just realize that this is inherently a decision. Without question, at the very least your customers and employees will be watching and listening — for better or worse.
  6. Rely on Facts — If and when you do craft a public statement about a particular political candidate or issue, use credible facts and resources to justify your position. We are living in an era of fake news, truthiness and distrust in scientific institutions. All the more reason for your company’s perspective on any specific political issue to be steeped in credible facts. Moreover, your political opinion will be far more substantive if it includes details and facts. Deploying only emotional rhetoric will open your company up to further scrutiny, which you will undoubtedly already receive. That said, don’t shy away from breathing emotion into your statement and using emotive language and imagery as a way to make tangible and real the facts of your argument.
  7. Be Conscious of Using Customer Contact Info — Before sending out an email to all your customers with any particular political stance, consider the use of their data for these sorts of distribution purposes. Prior to doing so, consider reviewing and updating terms of service or other user-related language that informs the customer explicitly that communications from your company may include political-specific messages. Now, I’m not an attorney that can advise on the specifics of the language to include. The point is that you should be transparent with your customers and do everything that you can to ensure that when they provide you with their contact info that they are made fully aware of the types of communications that they should expect to receive from your company.
  8. Face It, There Will Be a Reaction — There will be consequences to any stance that your company takes — political or otherwise. Prepare yourself for people’s praise and ire. You may lose customers, you may gain some. Challenges within team dynamics could emerge — the consequences of which could include some type of legal action or unrest. Your team could also rally around your decisive leadership. All this said, you will have done everything you could to have considered all of these possible outcomes and factored them into your framework and ultimate decision making based on your thoughtful and comprehensive process.
  9. Would You Have a Super PAC Say It? — Let’s face it, political stances happen all the time on behalf of tech companies and any company for that matter. Such acts of political positioning just typically take place through the activities of corporate Super PAC advertising efforts and financial contributions. I’m not questioning the role of Super PACS or PACs being a tool for companies to influence political issues and political outcomes. All I’m suggesting is to consider why you would have a Super PAC voice a particular issue or concern separate and apart from your company. Of course, one approach is typically far less transparent and publicly connected to your brand, but is that separation an asset or liability to your company, your customers and your team?

A Final Thought: A New Generation of Political Leaders from Startups & Tech

This article will definitely be criticized for a variety of reasons. That’s great — reach out and let’s talk about it! Hopefully we can continue to move the world of tech into the messy world of politics. As it should be moved towards.

Tech companies big and small have revolutionized our very way of life — from how we communicate, to how we get around, to how we perceive the world. AI and machine learning combined with other emerging technologies will continue to have an outside role in shaping every facet of the 21st century. Politics (and the resulting policy) will influence how those technologies develop and shape our world. The current backlash in Congress with Big Tech is an example of how technology has outrun our politics, but more importantly it’s an example of how tech has outrun our politicians. But it does not need to be this way in the future.

We could view this moment where CEOs and founders of tech startups are re-negotiating the relationship between their companies and heated political issues as an opportunity to reshape the composition of our elected leadership.

In our not too distant future, technology can be a tool to either further divide us and grow our already gaping inequalities, OR technology could be the tool that helps bring us together towards the unrecognized vision of American opportunity and prosperity for all. I think that some of the best people to help ensure that the latter possibility comes to fruition are those civically-conscious folks who are working in today’s tech startups.

Perhaps the current political reckoning that we are seeing taking place publicly and inside US tech companies will spur some of these CEOs, founders and employees to consider running for elected office in 2021. Their technological know-how combined with their civic conviction are the kinds of leaders that I think our 21st democracy needs and deserves.

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