Bradley Tusk, a former politician, banking executive, and political operative, is today peddling something very valuable to Silicon Valley startups: advice on how to be like Uber.
He would know. After successfully running former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's final reelection campaign, Tusk started in 2011 working with the ride-hailing startup to navigate the significant regulatory hurdles it faced in New York City, Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, and a handful of other U.S. cities.
In 2015, in order to branch out and consult other startups, he started Tusk Ventures, a political strategy firm with a venture capital model; that is, in exchange for the consulting it provides to startups, it takes equity in them. Its parent company, Tusk Holdings, also includes a family trust and a gambling company and employs 30 people in New York City. Tusk advises companies such as the fantasy-sports-for-money upstart FanDuel, the contractor-and-cleaner-on-demand service Handy, and, of course, Uber on navigating the political and regulatory environment across multiple markets. I spoke with him earlier this week. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You worked for Uber for equity starting back in 2011. You probably don't have to work, much less start a new firm, right?
Right. I said to myself, "Well, what do I want to do when I grow up?" Even though I had spent 20 years basically directly in government and politics in one form or another, what I realized is that I think we can have a bigger impact on the world by being that bridge between startups and government. I think that many of the major societal problems are more likely to be solved with really good commercially viable technology as opposed to just more government programs.
Is that pretty fulfilling?
Sure. There are times we're fighting against an entrenched interest. But sometimes it's less confrontational and more about what's good for the world. Take the drought. [A state of California] task force is not going to solve the drought problem. A scientist is going to come up with an energy-efficient way to desalinate water, but then that scientist is not going to know how to fight with the water utility, how to deal with the endangered species law. Our job is to figure out how to introduce a solution to the marketplace.
Do you only take on clients whose missions you fully believe in?
I don't want to pretend we are a social-impact fund. But, yeah, sort of. Part of what we do is to help make the right laws apply and figure out how to fight any entrenched interests standing in the way. The other half the time it's working with an idea that could really have a broad and profound impact on society to figure out how to bring that idea into the mainstream. It's kind of two different mandates.
What's a client you particularly support, ideologically?
There are several. But take Eaze. It's like Uber for weed delivery. Right now it's medical. That'll change in the future. Personally I don't believe in the War on Drugs, and I think legalized cannabis is the best first step. Do I think it can be a profitable company? I do. But it also just fits with my personal worldview.
Would you invest in "smart" guns?
I have thought about this, and I don't know whether smart guns are a good thing or a bad thing. You have to think about whether that's something that is helping gun safety or just fueling more gun sales. Everyone's moral compass is different. Sometimes it's tough.
I've been noticing a particular counterintuitive line of thinking is gaining popularity: that a legal or regulatory gray area is no longer a scary place in which to launch a business. In fact, it's ideal because if you can succeed, the reward is so great.
Yes, this is something I've written about. There are times when going ahead and operating in that gray area makes total sense and you can really move the ball forward. There are other times when it doesn't. If you have the potential to kill people, you shouldn't do it. Are you going to be asking a taxi regulator for forgiveness, or begging a U.S. Attorney for forgiveness? That's a very different thing.
What was the secret to winning for Uber in so many cities, with so many different regulatory and legal structures for driving for-hire vehicles across the United States?
The way to understand Uber's underlying government relationship is like this: If you give people some exposure to Uber, ultimately the representatives who answer to the voters are going to have to answer to those people's desires. Uber is a pretty great service, and taxis are so consistently bad across the country that people won't stand for it once they have the option.
CEO after CEO comes to me today and says, "I want you to do for me what you did for Uber." Most of the time I have to politely explain that people are not necessarily passionate about their product or service. There aren't that many times when you can politically motivate for people to advocate for a company. How many products would you contact your state senator to advocate for?
To force you to generalize a ton, what U.S. cities are the worst in general for startups aiming to shake up established industries?
You would think that Austin would be good on this stuff, because it's a tech hub. But it is not. Look at San Francisco with all the conflicts over the Google buses--and Google can't literally get the zoning for its own campus [in Mountain View]. Seattle has been very tough. So ironically, cities that you would think are very pro-technology because a huge part of their economy is technology sector, so New York, Austin, Seattle, San Francisco. But they actually have a very deep history of passing anti-tech local regulations. It's an interesting juxtaposition where the places you'd assume would be the best are sometimes the worst.
What did you learn about business working with Mayor Bloomberg?
Management style. It's probably less applicable to how we help our portfolio companies than how I run my own company. He has a very basic view, which is that you hire the most talented people you can get your hands on, you treat them well, you pay them well, you set up the most horizontal structure you can. Our office is open, like a bullpen. No one had titles until recently. We pay 100 percent of everyone's benefits. And it works: Today we can recruit anyone we want.