Bradley Tusk has worked with some of New York City’s most prominent politicians (see: Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign) and uses his learnings to help tech startups navigate their way around city and state regulations (see: Uber’s 2015 campaign). In his new book, “The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups from Death by Politics,” he talks about the things he’s tried and what future founders can take away from his story.
In the book, you talk a lot about how if New York squashes a business, it really sets the stage for other markets to do the same. How much of your business stems from helping businesses navigate New York regulations?
We’re running a campaign in 48 of the 50 states. But in terms of the importance of New York, in size of market, the public nature of the city, the reputation of its regulators ... If you take Lemonade (Insurance Co.), when we won New York, it’s not that we didn’t have to work too hard to get in the rest of the country, but we kind of knew we were going to. So New York has a really outsized impact – a disproportionate impact – on tech regulation. You know, if New York makes up like 3 percent of the country, it has a tenfold impact in terms of tech policy regulation.
What were the biggest ways in which running Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign prepared you for your consulting firm and helping technology companies navigate regulations?
A few things. One is, Mike is a technology genius in and of himself. He created a tech product a while ago so people don’t really think of him that way anymore, but people in the startup world do. He’s still venerated in the Valley as like a godfather of tech. So No. 1 is, learning from him was helpful. No. 2, being able to say to other startups, “Look, I did Bloomberg, I did Uber.” Those were really pretty good credentials, so the combination of the two was really helpful. And then three, the kind of organization that we had on the Bloomberg campaign and the relentlessness ultimately was useful for getting anything done. It’s the same concept: We are going to run every single tech campaign like at the high level, highly funded, political campaign, and if we bring that same approach to it, our odds of success are a lot higher.
Having worked with both current Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi (when he was CEO of Expedia Group) and former CEO Travis Kalanick – two very different leaders – how is Uber’s ability to navigate the law different today?
Dara came in under the orders of the board to calm things down. Uber had insane turbulence in 2017, and Dara’s job was to calm the waters, and then move (Uber) towards an IPO in 2019. To Dara’s credit, he’s doing all of that. On the flip side, it’s very hard to be the nicest person in the room and the toughest person in the room. Taxi is a cartel. It took someone with Travis’ personality to take them on and fight them every step of the way, and when they see an opening and weakness, they go after it. That was true of de Blasio with the cap fight. Now (Uber has) a limitation on one of the most important markets in the world. New York is the opposite of Vegas: What happens here is seen everywhere. So the rest of the world now knows, “Oh Uber is more vulnerable than they used to be,” and odds are they’re going to face these same attacks from everywhere. I don’t know if Dara is willing to do the kind of bare-knuckle politics it takes to win these things.
In exposing the tactics you used to Uber’s advantage in your book – Travis’ Law, as you call it – do you think that you’re putting Uber at a disadvantage in any way as they fight their current fight here in New York, and in other cities for that matter?
It’s an interesting question, because on one hand you can say we were so aggressive that that invariably produced a reputation for Uber that was negative among regulators, elected officials, and therefore there’s a target on Uber’s back. That’s probably true, but if we didn’t do that, Uber wouldn’t exist in the first place. It wasn’t like there was a reasonable debate between taxi and Uber as to what Uber should and shouldn’t be allowed to do. Taxi said to the regulators, “Don’t let them exist.” We were fighting off an early market, initially just intent to ban us completely. Is it better to have everyone like you but not stay alive in a distance, or better to have some enemies but be a real company? You gotta pick the latter.
How do you think New York officials’ sentiment toward tech has changed from 2011 – when you started working with tech companies – to now?
I think probably the most interesting comparison is Uber to (electric scooter rental service) Bird. We’re investors in Bird and working on Bird’s legalization all over the country, so it is easier now in the sense that after so many politicians in New York got the shit kicked out of them by startups like Uber, this notion of, “Oh we can just do the bidding of our donors and no one will know the difference,” they no longer think that. They’re far more likely to say, “OK, let’s try to figure out solutions here.” On the flip side, you can’t take them by surprise anymore for the same reason. Sometimes you can come at someone out of nowhere with incredible force and discipline, you win fights you shouldn’t win. And no one underestimates us any longer.