I used to be a political junkie. Like a sports fan who can name any basketball player, I knew who every senator, congressperson, and pundit was. Then, a few years ago, politics started to completely disgust me. I stopped watching the Sunday morning talk shows, stopped reading political news, stopped paying attention. And I felt better than ever.
But with the recent presidential election, things have changed. I don't mean my personal interest in politics, which is still at an all-time low. I mean that now, everything is getting tainted by politics.
As a CEO who'd rather not mix business and politics, I've recently realized that's not always possible. Because even if you want to keep them separate, your customers, your employees, and the public at large may not.
For example, there's a Canadian company called Shopify, which provides a platform that powers hundreds of thousands of online stores around the world. Shopify was recently sucked into a major PR tornado because one of the stores it hosts belongs to the news site Breitbart, which many people believe spreads hate and an unsavory agenda.
When this became widely known, Tobi Lütke, Shopify's CEO, got more than 10,000 emails, tweets, and messages demanding that Shopify kick Breitbart off its platform. Tobi wrote up a public letter defending the company's decision to allow it to continue on Shopify (his argument: freedom of speech). That letter was also met by opposition.
The controversy woke me up to how hard it can be for companies to avoid politics these days. What if that happened to us?
I began to think about it. My business partner, David Heinemeier Hansson, and I had a lengthy conversation on the subject. We also convened a meeting of our top managers and team leads. We wanted to talk about what we'd do if we were confronted by a large number of users demanding action because of something on our site that they deemed unreasonable or hurtful.
Unlike Shopify, people use Basecamp privately, so we don't see what they're doing with it. But let's say we weren't different. Where would we draw the line? If we and the public knew that a certain customer was doing something untoward with Basecamp, how would we respond?
This is an ongoing debate internally. Personally, I'm a live-and-let-live sort. Others are quicker on the kick-them-off trigger. Some are zero-tolerance for anything even borderline offensive.
Some hypotheticals were easy to agree on. For example, if we found out someone was using Basecamp to organize a neo-Nazi rally, that person would be gone. No question.
But that's an easy call. Many are not so clear-cut. Even pornography was debated. To some, all porn is horrible and exploitative, but others are not comfortable telling consenting adults what they can or can't do on film. When you really have the debate, you begin to see all the nuance.
Ultimately, we agreed to draw the line at hate. Hate crimes, hate speech. And while even
the lines defining hate can be blurry, we played out a variety of situations and everyone came down on the same side on those. So we feel good about that line in the sand.
The debate will continue, and of course everything will be handled on a case-by-case basis. And while I still abhor the state of politics, I found the discussion invigorating and enlightening. I'd recommend all CEOs bring this topic up to their executive and management teams. Get it out in the open. As a company, you're much better off having these discussions in relative safety before you wake up one morning to discover you're at the center of the political storm.