Opposition Research and Start-Ups: Know Your Opposition, Know Yourself, Know Everything

By Menashe Shapiro  |  November 11, 2015

On any high stakes political campaign, one of the most stressful jobs is in the research department. Get the facts right, perfect the argument, or nail the rapid response, and both the campaign and candidate look great. Miss a detail? Forget the footnotes in a voluminous document, or miss the fact that your campaign took money from the same felon? You (and the campaign and candidate) are the butt-end of jokes and press releases tagging you as the “gaffer in chief.”

It’s not surprising that political campaigns provide the best professional education out there. No school or degree can prepare you for the “everything is a big deal” and “no tomorrow” environment of a campaign. If you get something wrong, you may never recover or live to fight another day. You need to be right, all the time.

Winning campaigns have all the information readily available all the time. Losing campaigns start searching Google only when attacked, and end up responding defensively. All too often, staffs become slaves to single sources of information, such as solely depending on online search engines, LexisNexis, or social media. Sometimes, staffers become intoxicated with being quoted and miss crucial details. And today in the age of SuperPacs, stupidity reigns supreme when researchers perched in Washington develop dossiers that ignore local facts, people and their relationships, as well as history.

Incumbents, government bureaucrats, and entrenched companies from any industry count on these mistakes — in fact they thrive on them — to maintain the status quo and to sustain their control. Now more than ever, new innovations, technologies or upstart candidates need to ensure that they have checked every box when it comes to knowing what is around the next corner and being prepared with all of the facts. Nothing defeats a good idea more than being exposed for lacking credibility or being wrong.

What is oppo?

Let’s take a step back for a moment and define the phrase “opposition research,” starting with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean camping outside a house with a zoom lens or tapping someone’s phone. Let’s leave that to the FBI and private investigators.

Opposition research, or “oppo” as it is called, (bankers and lawyers sometimes call it “due diligence”), is about researching, digesting and reviewing all available information (whether public or confidential) and deciding what it means and how to use it. Oppo means not only knowing the information, but being able to answer the questions “so what”, “what now” and “what’s at risk.” This requires careful attention to detail and should theoretically include added scrutiny from someone heretofore unfamiliar with the information.

Start-ups encounter scrutiny from all angles. Start-ups face off with their direct competitors and their financial backers, the corporations and industries they are disrupting, and the players in government whose motivations are unknown. Whether you are trying to understand the source of negative press, why a VC has turned its back on your idea, or why a regulatory agency is dragging its feet on your license to operate, deep research, diligence and an exhaustive review of public filings and other documents can yield a world of information. This information does not have to end up in the public domain, but instead can help lawyers, lobbyists, CEOs and CFOs negotiate, strategize and guide their thinking as they execute any and all strategies and tactics.

Aside from knowing everything about your competitors, the companies you are disrupting, and the regulators who can work against you, self-research or self “oppo” is just as important. Knowing your own vulnerabilities, and who can find them, will give you the critical tools you need to handle a growing crisis, discussions with investors and potential attacks in the media — not to mention to preparing you for whatever is unexpectedly coming around the next corner. Commissioning an independent study about yourself is not about personal vanity, rather it could be the difference between expansion or contraction. Simple as that.

The West Wing even named an entire episode “opposition research” wherein idealistic upstart candidate (and eventual President) Matthew Santos repeatedly proclaimed his distaste for the concept, especially when he realized that the oppo was on himself. Candidate Santos’ moment of truth comes at the 1:53 moment of this clip, when he finally acknowledges the importance of reviewing his own record:

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Why does it matter?

Case in point: We all recently watched as Uber beat back an attempt by NYC — and their allies in the yellow taxi industry — to shut it down. NYC’s plan, masked as a cap on Uber’s growth, essentially would have stopped Uber in its tracks and set a bad nationwide precedent. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.

What followed was a barrage of mailers, commercials, meetings, studies, charts, campaigns, petitions, letters, social media posts and public rallies, all equipped with the right information, facts and figures, points and counterpoints, attacks on taxis, campaign contributions and exposés on the motivations of the mayor and city council.

What we didn’t see was the months (and in some cases years) of “sausage making” that built the world of information that came pouring out over the course of just a few weeks. Whether we were talking about taxi medallion owners who didn’t pay taxes or their drivers, campaign contributions to the mayor and city council, votes or statements from politicians or maps of where Uber had the most pick-ups, all of the information was already available, digested and ready for use.

By the time the City announced its plans to cap Uber’s growth, Uber was able to plug in all information in real time. Any statement, validation, or position of a regulator or council member was met with a skeptical set of facts that had no retort.

Moreover, no one knew more about their shortcomings and vulnerabilities than Uber itself. Uber knew what was out there. They knew themselves as well as they knew their enemies. So when a government official — new to this debate — would start their research on Uber, the company, its lobbyists, PR, executives and lawyers all had the responses, explanations and counterpoints ready to go.

What does it all mean?

Every start-up encounters similar hurdles. Successful ones like Uber acknowledge what they don’t know yet and what they need to know. Others, the start-ups who never emerge from their classification as a start-up, usually fail because they were so enamored by their own great press and good ideas they didn’t take the time to learn the details about their competition, their industry, and even worse, themselves.

Survival of a new venture is not only about understanding everything you can control, it’s about investing in learning what you don’t know and can’t always control.

This post is written by Menashe Shapiro. Menashe leads the media and telecommunications practice for Tusk Strategies and Tusk Ventures where he is a Managing Director for Research.