yesIssie LapowskyNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Power

Out of charity and self-interest, tech lobbies for the 'little guys' in D.C.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the extent to which the fortunes of some of tech's biggest businesses are tied to some of the country's smallest ones.

Julia Hartz

Eventbrite President Julia Hartz said she realized quickly how devastating shelter-in-place orders were going to be for her company's small-business partners.

Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Julia Hartz was pacing a groove into her living room carpet one night in early March. That day, Hartz, who runs the online ticketing platform Eventbrite, had spoken with at least half a dozen operators of concert and event venues who'd been forced to shut down as COVID-19 crept across the country.

"I'd hit that point of: This is horrific," Hartz recalled.

Though it was already late on the West Coast, Hartz called her lobbyist, Heather Podesta of D.C.-based Invariant, to deliver what she described as a "heartfelt monologue" about what the impending crisis was going to do to small businesses like the ones Eventbrite serves.

"What I said to her was, 'I will put as much effort and time and resources behind making sure the people who are making decisions quickly about relief understand the importance of live event producers in our society … and how on-the-edge all of these business owners are," Hartz said.

This, of course, wasn't pure altruism. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the extent to which the fortunes of some of tech's biggest businesses are tied to some of the country's smallest ones. In early April, with most of the country in various states of lockdown, Eventbrite had to lay off nearly half of its own staff.

But these tech heavyweights have something that their small business counterparts often don't: sophisticated policy teams and high-profile lobbying contacts. Now, some of these tech companies — and individual executives within them — are using whatever influence they have in Washington and in their state and local governments to back the businesses that make their platforms work.

Seeking a win-win

After that call with Podesta, Hartz started reaching out to other tech companies that are similarly reliant on small businesses.

In early May, Eventbrite teamed up with Airbnb, Etsy, Thumbtack and Upwork on a letter to Congress, urging lawmakers to make the next round of federal stimulus loans more accessible to sole proprietors and businesses with only a few employees. Eventbrite, Airbnb and Etsy had also lobbied Congress on small business issues in the lead-up to passage of the CARES Act. For these companies, which rely on event venues, small retailers, home-share hosts and gig workers for revenue, the work is strategic.

"If paid events aren't happening, we're not generating revenue," Hartz said.

Other efforts have taken a more philanthropic bent. The D.C.-based firm 202works, which matches companies with policy experts, recently launched a pro-bono task force focused on helping small businesses hit by COVID-19 navigate government aid programs and receive policy support. That team, which includes the policy heads of tech companies such as Lyft and Spotify, is chaired by former FEMA director James Lee Witt.

All of the initiatives aim to ensure that tiny companies don't go unnoticed by lawmakers juggling competing interests. "We're talking about the smallest of small businesses," said Althea Erickson, Etsy's vice president of global public policy, of the average Etsy seller. "They often fall in the cracks, in between relief that's provided for workers' unemployment and the benefits provided to businesses through credit loans and other programs."

Setting aside loans

Under the CARES Act, Congress set aside $349 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program. But almost as soon as the money became available, loads of small businesses started reporting trouble accessing it. That included many of the electricians, plumbers and other professionals who list their services on Thumbtack, said CEO Marco Zappacosta.

"One of the themes I've heard in my calls with some of these pros is just them feeling left out," Zappacosta said.

Some banks prioritized existing customers when doling out loans, making it difficult for sole proprietors who didn't already have large business accounts with banks to obtain funds.

Another complication was the PPP program's mandate that businesses spend 75% of their loans on payroll. For businesses that closed due to the pandemic, or didn't have any employees to begin with, that meant only a small fraction of the loan was usable. And it gave those businesses only eight weeks to spend that money on payroll in order for the loan to convert into a grant.

In their letter to Congress, Eventbrite, Airbnb, Thumbtack, Etsy and Upwork asked to extend the loan period to the end of the year, set aside a portion of PPP loans that would be $100,000 or less, and allow companies to use a larger percentage of their loans on rent and utilities, among other necessities. The HEROES Act, recently passed by the House of Representatives, would extend the PPP program and carve out 25% of PPP funding for businesses with 10 or fewer employees.

Senate Republicans have rejected the HEROES Act. But in a video tweeted this week, Florida's Marco Rubio, who chairs the Small Business Committee, said he expects Senate Republicans to soon introduce legislation that would give businesses more than eight weeks to spend the money. "For those asking about whether the time is going to be extended, we have the votes to do that," Rubio said. "The only issue now is, can we do it without other things being added to it that prevent us from getting this passed?"

It's unclear how Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill will resolve that issue. But Chris Lehane, the one-time damage-control specialist in the Clinton White House who is now Airbnb's senior vice president for global policy and communications, said that, at least for now, there's a bipartisan understanding in Congress that this community of small businesses needs more help.

"So many members, to their credit, remember what happened in 2008 and 2009, where there was a perception that the big corporations had been taken care of, but the little guy hadn't," Lehane said. "There was a real sensitivity to it this time around."

'Knocking on that bigger door'

Airbnb, which recently laid off nearly 2,000 workers, also built a tool for hosts to contact federal lawmakers with stories and requests, and the company set up online educational programs to help guide those conversations. During negotiations around the CARES Act, the tool funneled 100,000 calls and emails into Congress.

Eventbrite built its own platform to help event creators get the most up-to-date information about federal loans. It circulated a questionnaire to the same people, asking how their businesses had been affected and what type of assistance they were seeking. Eventbrite used those responses to inform multiple letters to Congress and one to the White House.

Among the respondents in that campaign were the co-owners of PianoFight, a San Francisco restaurant and event space that typically hosts 85 events a month, but has been closed since mid-March. PianoFight received some federal aid related to the pandemic, but Dan Williams, the venue's executive director, said his team has been reluctant to spend it due to continued uncertainty about how, exactly, they're allowed to do so.

For Williams, having a conduit like Eventbrite dealing with the state and federal government has been critical. "Just the fact that we're able to at least tag along with someone who's knocking on that bigger door we wouldn't normally have access to is appreciated," Williams said.

It's not only Main Street businesses benefitting from these alliances. Some smaller tech firms are, too. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, Eric Dy, CEO of the startup Bloomlife, was on the verge of applying for Food and Drug Administration approval for a device that women can wear to help them monitor their pregnancies for complications. Knowing that the FDA would be consumed getting COVID-19 tests to market, Dy wondered whether his own approval would be on hold.

Moreover, he wondered if Bloomlife's device might be useful for pregnant women who need a telehealth tool right now to usher them through the pandemic. So Dy got in touch with the pro-bono task force formed by 202works. Its members contacted the FDA to seek answers on the timeline for his application and helped him draft a letter to members of Congress, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, who recently sponsored a bill focused on maternal health for black women.

"This kind of stuff feels so distant from what a company like ours would be able to access," said Dy, who runs an 18-person team of primarily data scientists and engineers. "It seems like a whole different world."

Of course, there's no guarantee that all the lobbying in the world will save the millions of small businesses that are hurting. During his time heading FEMA, Witt recalled, the agency would poll small businesses that had been affected by major disasters; typically, around 40% never reopened. "I think this is going to probably be a lot worse than the 40%, simply because of the magnitude of it and the duration they've been shut down," he said.

Those are lousy odds — not only for small businesses like PianoFight, but for the tech platforms built around them. "When we get hit super-hard, they can't just back away and say, 'OK, good luck,'" Williams said. "They need us to survive, too."

People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

Keep Reading Show less
Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

Keep Reading Show less
Policy

Bad news for Big Tech: Bipartisan agreement on antitrust reform

Democrats and Republicans found common ground during the first House hearing on antitrust of the new Congress. Here's what that means for tech giants.

The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee held their first hearing of the 117th Congress.

Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

During the first House antitrust hearing of the new Congress, Democratic chairman David Cicilline and Republican ranking member Ken Buck made it clear they intend to forge ahead with a series of bipartisan reform efforts that could cut into the power of the largest technology companies.

"We will work on a serious bipartisan basis to advance these reforms together," Cicilline said during his opening remarks Thursday.

Keep Reading Show less
Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

Citizen’s plan to keep people safe (and beat COVID-19) with an app

Citizen CEO Andrew Frame talks privacy, safety, coronavirus and the future of the neighborhood watch.

Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Latest Stories