Glenn Beck just convinced me not to run our anti-Trump marketing campaign

(A lesson in the ethics of growing a startup)

In startups, we’re told our job is to grow. We set ambitious targets and have ‘growth’ as our north star — it’s both anxiety-inducing and extremely rewarding. This leads teams to test bold and creative tactics. We venerate and hail these teams as having created the greatest “growth hacks” — a good example is Airbnb’s famous ‘Craigslist-spam’ growth hack. 1

But we don’t do a good job at is questioning whether we should do a marketing campaign. This week, we’ve been planning to roll out an anti-Trump marketing campaign. This morning I listened to Glenn Beck’s interview at the Upfront summit. Afterwards, I decided not to run the campaign — I decided that there are some things more important than growth.

This is the story of that decision — my hope in telling this story is that others will take time to weigh growth and company values.

The Story

Every couple months, our growth team (made up of engineers & marketers) will do a “hack day”. Basically, these are projects that a) we aren’t quite sure will work or b) are a bit crazy — and we try to “get something live” in one day. Our main goal is to grow awareness and traffic to Twenty20 — authentic, real-world stock photos.

This past week, we were having a couple beers after work and started talking about Trump’s first week in office. In particular, I was concerned about the immigration ban and change up on the National Security Council. One of our team members joked about how differently Trump must see the world and said “I wonder what a stock photo site from Trump’s mind would look like”. A few days later, we decided the idea had some legs.

So, we took last Friday’s ‘Hack Day’ to launch TrumpStockPhotos — stock photos from Trump’s perspective. In the project, we poke fun of Trump and then link to organizations that oppose Trump (see screenshots below).


After your first search, you get the following result:

Each “alternative search” had a joke behind it. And when you clicked on a photo, a pop-up explained that Trump is wrong and asked you to donate to an organization opposing Trump.

Native Americans => bad stock photos of white families
Tax Returns => 403: Forbidden error

Normal sized hands=> bad stock photos of baby’s hands
Science => 404: Does not exist error

The hypothesis was that some press outlets would find it interesting and share. It seemed funny and had upside if enough people shared it. The way we saw it, there’s no real risk — either people care or they don’t. One day for a quick marketing campaign is totally worth the upside — plus it was a lot of fun hacking around with my team.

Skip ahead to this morning.

I ran across this post from Mark Suster: How Glenn Beck Won Over the Audience at Upfront Summit. And I watched this video from their Summit:

In a deeply vulnerable way, Glenn shared his journey from a right-wing catastrophe pundit to leaving FoxNews and apologizing for his extremist punditry. He admits that he was part of the problem — that he contributed to the extreme polarization of our political climate. If you don’t remember how bad it got, just watch Jon Stewart’s parody of Glenn at his ‘peak crazy’.

This man lived and breathed hyper-polarization. And coming from a place of candor and vulnerability, he brought a clear message for Americans:

“There’s no good guys here. I mean who are we rooting for? … The media portrays every conservative like [alt-right] Milo and every Democrat like Occupy. And that’s not true.”

Challenging us to define our values and our role in making things better, Glenn is pushing us to think about our reaction to Donald Trump. What will the ‘50% against Trump’ look like over the next four years? Will it look similar to the anger and craziness that reigned in 2009 (when Glenn Beck, the Tea Party and the Birther movement took aim at Obama)? Or will they focus on improving the country with thoughtful debate on policies. If we continue down this increasingly extreme cycle of swapping ‘crazy right anger’ for ‘crazy left anger’, it may tear our country apart.

In the interview, he argues:

“Nobody listens to each other. We [political parties] switch seats of power and then have extremists on each side attack the people in charge. We get angry and caught up in arguing about people….Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas. We’ve been stuck in the people place.
Pain is real [on both sides]. They [liberals] are sensing now what we sensed before [conservatives in 2009]. And you didn’t like it when they mocked you. Don’t mock them. This is a golden opportunity that has fallen in our lap.”

After hearing his words, I took a couple hours to reflect:

Photo via Twenty20

What was I doing last week?

I built a tool to mock Trump — to discuss people instead of policy. We were playing into the same cycle of anger, fear and mockery. I had convinced myself that the ends justify the means. But, this is the logic that can destroy a country. In order to succeed, we’ll need to get out of our gutter and debate with respect. After reflection, it was clear:

Glenn Beck just convinced me to not run our anti-Trump marketing campaign.

Very simply, I do not want to harm our country. I do not want to throw fuel on the fire of our collective madness. Instead of capitalizing on people’s anger and desire to tear down Trump, we are taking down the project — we’ll find other ways to grow.

For all startups, there’s always a fine ethical line. It’s hard to balance growth and ‘company values’ (especially when your survival is at stake). However, the decisions that you make today will eventually define your company. We can choose to amplify the echo chamber or we can use our influence to make a dent on the bigger issues. It’s time for us hackers to start asking ourselves the hard questions.

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