When Innovators & Regulators Clash

By Bradley Tusk  |  July 29, 2015

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio waved the white flag in his fight with Uber. While every disagreement between an innovator and regulator is different, there are a few lessons from the Uber-de Blasio fight worth noting:

  • Where does the attack come from? If it’s from a place of ideology, it could still be wrong or unfair, but it’s harder to beat. If it’s purely an attempt to take care of a campaign donor/ entrenched interest (like with taxi and de Blasio), it’s a lot easier to fight because everyone else in the political ecosystem knows it and are a lot less likely to carry the water for something blatantly self-serving.
  • How does the attack fit the overall agenda? Let’s say the attack against you comes from regulator appointed by a Governor. The regulator may be doing the bidding of the people you’re disrupting, but the regulator’s boss — i.e., the Governor — may have run for office on a platform of innovation and economic growth. That’s your opening (and go straight to the top to make your point). In New York, de Blasio left his left flank exposed and by pointing out that his cap on Uber would hurt minority drivers and riders, it made it a lot easier to fight his plan. How any given regulation impacts you is a lot less important than how it could, if framed properly, impact the elected official in charge. uber-tweets
  • What can you rely on your customers to do? Uber inspires a lot of passion amongst its customers, but it has the advantages of being an outstanding, tangible product replacing an all-too-often decrepit, unappealing incumbent. So its customers will speak up. No matter how good your platform or service is, that may not be true in your case. Your customers may not be locally centered enough to mean something to elected officials. Your product may be too intangible for people to easily explain and stand up for in 140 characters. Or what you offer, no matter how great it is, just may not inspire enough passion amongst your users to rely on them to fight for you. uber-twitter
  • Is fighting the right option? In the case of taxi and de Blasio, Uber didn’t have a choice. They had to fight, they had to win and they did (and having a CEO as bold, smart and engaged as Travis Kalanick doesn’t hurt either). But the right playbook isn’t always to fight. Sometimes it’s to pre-empt. Sometimes it’s to ignore. Sometimes it’s to cut a deal. And sometimes only a brawl works. But you need to know which approach applies to which situation — and every jurisdiction is different.
  • Did you make your case before the attack came? Being unprepared is not usually a recipe for success. Knowing who your opponents are, how they’ll come at you, what kind of political influence they have, how they’ll use it, how you counter that, how you win over the relevant regulators, how you build the right narrative around your product or service among regulators, how you build support among local business leaders, community leaders, pundits and other influentials, and a dozen other issues and permutations is critical. You didn’t get to where you are by not working and not being prepared. This is no different.

Odds are, you didn’t create a business to spend your time dealing with politics. But as Pericles said back in 450 BC, just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you. The sooner you understand that, the better off you’ll be.