Long before tech, I cut my teeth working on political campaigns fresh out of college. I was a field staffer on Obama’s first presidential campaign, during a time when smartphones were novel, Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook grew mostly just on college campuses, and doing email marketing was considered “tech savvy”.
I went on to join a few other campaigns – some for candidates, some for issues (climate change). Doing opposition research was the norm and drafting op-eds and letters to the editors for local newspapers to tell my side’s position, or undermine our opponent’s position, were table stakes tactics. In fact, there is a job on most political campaigns, called a “tracker”, whose sole responsibility was to travel to the opposing candidate’s campaign events, film them, and hoping to catch a gaffe or awkward moment that can then be turned into a political ad against that candidate – the ultimate form of opposition research in real time.
When I read the big Washington Post story from a couple of weeks ago, on how Facebook paid a political consulting firm to undermine TikTok, I felt both shocked and nostalgic. Nostalgic because I saw familiar phrases like “placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets” and “use opposition-research tactics” in the article. Shocked because I never thought these phrases would appear in an article about two rival tech companies.
Will every tech company need to become a political campaign to win? Are there things from a political campaign that tech companies can and should learn from?
CEO as a Product
Having spent time in both worlds, I find many similarities between political campaigns and tech startups. There is a lot the two worlds can and should learn from each other. One dimension that startups can learn from successful political campaigns is what I call “CEO as a product”.
When you see a candidate run for president on TV (or social media), you would rightfully assume that the candidate runs the show and is the “CEO” of that campaign. Technically that’s true; the candidate can make the final decision on everything, from campaign messaging and strategy, to scheduling logistics and hiring/firing staff. But the candidate is also the “product” that the campaign is selling to the voters. Candidates who don’t understand that they are the “product” often fail. Candidates who do understand that, and thus stay away from micromanaging and hire a competent campaign manager to be the real “CEO” running the campaign operation, often succeed.
In 2008, Barack Obama was the “product” and his campaign manager David Plouff was the “CEO” of the campaign. On the Republican side that year, John McCain was the “product” and his campaign manager Steve Schmidt was the “CEO” of that campaign. Both campaigns beat many other candidates during the party primary elections. Many of those losing candidates did not understand their proper role as the “product” or were just bad products (e.g. Rudy Giuliani).
Most founders/CEOs of tech startups don’t see themselves as the “product”. The ones who do often achieve much bigger successes than the ones who don’t. That’s because as a company gets bigger and its customers also become bigger and more sophisticated, the CEO’s credibility and charisma is also a “product” that’s being sold, regardless of whether your actual product is a super fast database, an easy to use SaaS solution, or a viral short video app. The choice to buy a technology product or vote for someone is ultimately an emotional choice, not a logical one. Candidates who can build that emotional connection reach the highest offices. Thus, a CEO’s ability to build that emotional connection by evolving into a “product” can often determine how high the ceiling is for a company’s growth, especially one that aspires to become a public company.
This evolution can take two paths. Path 1 is remaking yourself. Path 2 is hiring someone who is already “camera ready” and “product ready”.
Google took Path 2, first hiring Eric Schmidt before its IPO, then later elevating Sundar Pichai as its current CEO, with Larry Page the cofounder serving only a brief stint as CEO in between.
Meta took Path 1, with Mark Zuckerberg constantly remaking himself and doing things that political candidates do, like touring different states in America in 2017 and delivering a policy speech at Georgetown in 2019.
While the Meta stock price has taken a beating recently, it’s safe to assume that if Zuckerberg did not try to evolve himself beyond his nerdy engineer origin in the last few years, things would have been much worse.
There are examples in the enterprise software industry too. Marc Benioff of Salesforce is the quintessential Path 1, so much so that rumors of him actually running for public office are always swirling around. Hashicorp’s co-founders took Path 2, by hiring David McJannet as CEO, who steered the company towards its IPO last year.
There are more examples I can cite, but these are not the only paths for startup CEOs to choose from. Another more self-aware example is Frank Bien, CEO of Looker (a data analytics tool). He decided to sell his company to Google Cloud for $2.6 billion partially because, as a former punk rocker, he did not want to evolve to become a public company CEO (Path 1) nor wanted to hire one just so his company could go public (Path 2).
When your company goes public, you as the CEO, by definition, become a public figure, just like any political candidate, president, senator, congressperson, etc. In fact, every public company CEO should at least have the political instinct necessary to win a congressional seat or the mayorship of a city the size of San Francisco. And an important factor that all tech investors should develop a sense for is whether the founding CEOs in their portfolio have that capacity to evolve “as a product” or the humility to hire someone who is “camera ready” and “product ready”. After all, every investor dreams about his investment going public.
Develop Political Intuitions Early
Most founding CEOs of tech startups develop a strong financial instinct early, because they have to raise money, calculate burn rates, price their products, and do the financial basics of running a company. As technology products become increasingly politicized all around the world, it would pay long-term dividends for the new generation of founding CEOs to develop some political intuitions early and think of themselves as “products” akin to political candidates. As Peter Thiel pointed out in his recent Bitcoin 2022 Conference speech, the choice of technology is becoming a political decision.
Additionally, it would be useful to add elements of a successful political campaign into building a startup as well. I’m not suggesting that a startup CEO should hire a “tracker” as one of the first 50 employees. I’m not suggesting that the daily machinations of Washington DC should occupy the CEO’s weekly leadership meetings. But if you already read the Wall Street Journal once a week (if not, you should), you may want to read the politics section of the New York Times or Washington Post at least once a month, just to start developing some political intuitions. And learning how to frame competing products as your opponents in the same way political campaigns do, and how to punch up or down look-alike products strategically, can be crucial in elevating your startup from the crowd.
Facebook understood this early when Sheryl Sandberg joined as COO in 2008. Although Sandberg is widely known as a high-powered tech exec, she also cut her teeth in politics first, as then Treasury Secretary Larry Summers’s chief of staff during the Clinton administration.
TikTok is playing catch up in developing its political intuitions and paying a hefty price for it. To be fair, Zhang Yiming likely saw this deficit looming and chose Path 2 by hiring Kevin Mayer in 2020, who was very much “camera ready” and “product ready”. But the 2020 election season got too messy, and Mayer did not stick around, because he was ultimately a mercenary not a loyalist.
Being one of the most self aware tech CEOs in recent memory, evident in his departure speech, Zhang did not later choose Path 1 to evolve himself, but decided instead to resign and chose his co-founder and BFF (a loyalist), Liang Rubo, as his replacement. If this video of Zhang and Liang reminiscing about their startup journey is any indication, Liang has a long way to go to evolve into a “camera ready” and “product ready” CEO, though he now has the opportunity to try.
Encouragingly, many new founding CEOs I talk to regularly are asking more questions about the geopolitical dynamics, big nation relationships, and the latest developments in Washington DC. These tend to be immigrant founders from China, India, and increasingly from Latin America as well. Their curiosity and willingness to develop political intuitions early is healthy, and I always encourage them to read up on the journeys of successful and failed political campaigns, in the same way that they would study the experiences of Airbnb and WeWork.
Whether you like it or not, having some political intuition is now an essential element of startup building, just like running an engineering department or ramping up a sales team.
Facebook vs TikTok：每家科技公司都会模仿政治竞选团队吗？
在步入科技领域之前，我一直从事政治大选工作。从大学毕业开始，我参与了奥巴马第一次总统竞选的团队，当时智能手机还很新鲜，Twitter还不存在，Facebook主要是在大学校园里发展，用email做宣传工具已经是很 “科技先进” 了。
我后来又参加了其他一些竞选团队——有些是为候选人，有些是为具体的政策议题（如气候变化）。做大量的对手研究（oppsition research），为当地报纸起草专栏文章（op-eds）和给编辑组的提议信（letters to the editor），以说明我方的立场，或阻挠对手的立场，这些都是标准打法。大多数竞选团队里有一个很有趣的职位，叫 “跟踪者”（tracker），这个人的唯一职责就是每天去对手办的各种竞选活动，拍摄记录他的一举一动，希望捕捉到一个口误或尴尬的瞬间，然后将其变成打击对手的政治广告——这就是实时版的对手研究，做到极致。
当我读到两周前《华盛顿邮报》出版关于Facebook如何支付一家政治咨询公司来破坏TikTok的大新闻时，我既感到震惊，又有点怀旧。怀旧是因为我在文章中看到了 “在主要地区新闻媒体上发表专栏文章和编辑组提议信” 以及 “使用对手研究策略” 这些熟悉的语句，震惊的点是我从未想到这些语句会出现在一篇关于两个敌对科技公司的文章中。
因为在政治、科技这两个世界里都呆过，我觉得大选团队和创业公司之间有许多相似之处，这两个世界有很多可以且应该互相学习的地方。创业公司可以从成功的大选团队中学到的一个东西，就是我称之为 “把CEO当产品” 的这个概念。
当您在电视（或社交媒体）上看到一个候选人竞选总统时，您会理所当然地认为候选人就是大老板，是竞选团队的 “CEO”。理论上讲，这没说错：候选人可以拍板所有事情，从竞选口号和战略方针，到后勤安排和聘用、解雇员工；但是候选人也是竞选团队向选民推销的 “产品”。不懂得自己是 “产品” 的候选人往往落败；明白这一点的候选人，远离微观管理团队，雇用一名称职的竞选经理（campaign manager）来作真正的 “CEO” 运营竞选团队，往往会取胜。
2008年的时候，奥巴马是 “产品”，他的竞选经理 David Plouff 是竞选团队的 “CEO”。那年共和党推出的约翰·麦凯恩是 “产品”，他的竞选经理 Steve Schmidt 是该竞选团队的 “CEO”。在党内初选的过程中，这两组竞选团队都击败了许多候选人。那些落选的候选人们，很多都没有正确认识到他们作为 “产品” 的角色，或者自己本身就是很烂的 “产品”（例如前纽约市长鲁迪·朱利亚尼）。
大多数科技创业公司的创始人/CEO并不把自己当 “产品” 看。如果局限在这个角度，公司往往做不大。因为随着公司越来越大，其客户也越来越大，越来越复杂，CEO的信誉和魅力也是被出售的 “产品” 之一，不管公司的真正产品是一个超快的数据库，一款易用的SaaS，还是一个短视频app。无论是买一款科技产品，还是给某个人投票，这最终是一个情感上的选择，而不是逻辑上的。能与选民们建立这种情感为基础的关系的候选人，往往能爬到很高的官职。因此，能把自己演化成 “产品” 从而建立这种情感基础的CEO，往往决定这家公司发展的天花板有多高，尤其是有野心上市的公司。
这种演变一般有两种路径。路径1：重新塑造自己。路径2：雇一个已经是好 “产品”，可以随时 “上镜” 的人。
谷歌走的是路径2，先是在上市前雇佣了Eric Schimdt，后来又将Sundar Pichai 提拔为现任CEO，而Larry Page作为创始人之一在这期间只是短暂担任了CEO。
在企业软件行业也有这样的例子。Salesforce的CEO，Marc Benioff，是典型的 “路径1”，以至于关于他真要参政竞选的传言源源不断。Hashicorp的联合创始人采取了路径2，聘请David McJannet为CEO，而他引导公司在去年实现了IPO。
我还可以举出更多的例子，但这并不是创业公司CEO们唯一可以选择的道路。另一条更有自知自明的路径就是Looker CEO Frank Bien 选的那条（Looker是一款数据分析工具）：他以26亿美元把Looker卖给谷歌云，部分原因是，作为一个前朋克摇滚乐手，他不想演变成一家上市公司的CEO（路径1），但也不想仅仅为了能上市就雇一个新的CEO（路径2）。
当一家公司上市时，你作为它的CEO就默认成为公众人物了，就像任何政治候选人、总统、参议员、众议员等一样。事实上，每个上市公司的CEO至少应该具备能赢一个众议员席位或像旧金山这种规模的城市的市长职位所需要的政治直觉。而且，所有投科技领域的投资人也都应该培养一种直觉，看看自己所投的公司的创始CEO是否有能把自己变成 “产品” 的潜力，或者足够谦虚，愿意去雇一位已经是成熟 “产品”、随时可以上镜的人，因为没有一个投资人不梦想自己投的公司能上市。
大多数创业公司的创始CEO很早就培养出了财务直觉，因为他们必须要融资，计算burn rate，为产品定价，以及做公司运营的基本财务工作。随着科技产品在世界各地变得越来越政治化，新一代的创始CEO们尽早培养一些政治直觉，并把自己当成类似于大选候选人的 “产品”，将会带来很多长期好处。正如 Peter Thiel 在他近期的比特币2022年会议演讲中指出的，科技的选择正在成为政治决定。
此外，将成功的竞选团队的元素融入到建立一个创业公司的过程中，也是很有用的。我并不是建议创业公司的CEO雇一个 “追踪者” 作为前50名员工之一，我也不建议把华盛顿首都的各种政治新闻带入CEO每周的领导会议中。但是，如果作为CEO已经每周读一次《华尔街日报》（如果没有，你应该开始读），就可以考虑每月至少读一次《纽约时报》或《华盛顿邮报》的政治版，来开始培养政治直觉。学习如何用大选团队的打法将竞品变成对手，以及如何有战略性地打击类似产品，从而使你的公司脱颖而出，至关重要。
当Sheryl Sandberg在2008年作为首席运营官加入Facebook时，Facebook就已明白了这一点。虽然Sandberg是以科技巨头的高管身份而为人所知，但她也是先在政治圈里历练出来的。在克林顿当总统期间，她担任了当时的财政部长Larry Summers 的幕僚长（chief of staff）。
TikTok在发展自己的政治直觉方面起步很晚，为此付出了不小的代价。公平地说，张一鸣很可能早就看到了这个漏洞，并选择了路径2，在2020年聘请了Kevin Mayer。他算是款非常好的 “产品” ，随时可以上镜，但2020年的大选实在太混乱了，Mayer没有坚持下去，因为他最终是个“雇佣兵”，而不是位“忠臣”。
作为近年最有自知自明的科技届CEO之一（从他的离职演讲中就可以看出），张一鸣并没有选择路径1来重新塑造自己，而是决定辞职，并选择了他的合伙人加闺蜜（忠臣）梁汝波作为他的替代者。如果张一鸣和梁汝波回忆他们创业历程的这段视频能说明任何问题，那就是梁汝波离把自己塑造成一个随时可以上镜的 “产品” 还有很长的路要走，尽管他现在也有机会去尝试了。