Get access to Protocol
Where should we send your daily tech briefing?
David Barrett is afraid. Afraid that President Trump is unraveling democracy before his eyes. Afraid for his business that depends on having a functioning economy. Afraid for the future and what comes next.
What he's not afraid of is speaking up and telling his customers that they should vote for Joe Biden.
Barrett spoke to Protocol Thursday night to explain how he made the unusual decision, just 12 days before the election, to email the users of his expense tracking software to tell them that "anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy."
"I think that it's easy to justify standing aside," he told Protocol. "But I believe standing aside and doing nothing is an endorsement of the status quo. It's not choosing not to participate, it is taking a stand in defense of the status quo. And so internally, we said, 'Hey, it would be easy to do nothing. Nobody would criticize us if we did nothing. But doing nothing doesn't actually accomplish anything.'"
Barrett's email equated a vote for Trump to an endorsement for voter suppression and the dismantling of democracy. "Expensify depends on a functioning society and economy; not many expense reports get filed during a civil war," he wrote. "As CEO of this business, it's my job to plot a course through any storm — and all evidence suggests that another four (or as Trump has hinted — eight, or more?) years of Trump leadership will damage our democracy to such an extent, I'm obligated on behalf of shareholders to take any action I can to avoid it."
It was a calculated choice, Barrett said: While it may be risky, he knew that sending it to more people meant that the message could be more effective.
"This wasn't just me firing off an email out of the blue," he said. "This was the result of an inclusive process that really engaged the whole company across a wide range of opinions. And this is a genuine effort just to make the world a better place using the tools at our disposal."
How the decision was made
It wasn't just Barrett's call to send the note. Rather than limiting employee discussion out of fear of political discourse or running his email by a handful of execs, Expensify's structure as a very flat organization meant that the entire company weighed in on the decision — whether they were Trump supporters, Biden supporters or fans of third-party candidates like Jo Jorgensen. (Federal Election Commission records show that employees have donated to a wide-range of candidates.)
"The discussion was really about, how do we be very inclusive about engaging with these dissenting opinions and treat them respectfully? We want to have a diverse environment, because diversity creates a wide range of different opinions and that diversity of perspectives brings creativity," Barrett said.
The email started with an idea posted in a Slack channel called #WhatsNext where employees can post a proposal (like endorsing Biden), a problem they've identified ("democracy unraveling rapidly in front of our very eyes and we depend upon that for a functioning business") and a solution (encourage users to vote for Biden). From there, anyone can weigh in on the topic.
In cases where there's a dispute over evidence-based claims, like whether Trump is actually suppressing voters, the discussion moves into a separate #Factcheck channel where people can argue their points with supporting links as evidence. If there's ever a conflict, then the company turns to the Ad Fontes media study as a way to determine what's the most ethical source on it.
A group of top-tier employees — Expensify's equivalent of a Senate — then makes a call after weighing all of the different arguments presented on what the company's official position will be. In this case, that group concluded that Trump is a threat to democracy and that the company's policy would be to endorse Biden.
"The key to running a flat company is you have to have strong processes in place, so everyone just takes the emotion out of it," Barrett said. "The company has to have some mechanism to make decisions, and those don't necessarily reflect any individual person's opinion."
The process is meant to give all employees a chance to weigh in, even when their opinions conflict. "I'm not going to pretend it's easy," Barrett said. "Having a dissenting view, that's hard in any environment. And so I think the best we can do is try to create a process where it's okay for you to disagree with what the company says."
Navigating the fallout
Whether or not everyone inside Expensify thought the email was a good idea, opinion over it was certainly divided outside.
Many people praised Barrett's move with one CEO calling it "an example of corporate leadership, courage and bravery that more companies should embrace in this harrowing time." It can also count at least one more subscriber as a result of the email. But others were rankled that an expense report software provider was telling them who to vote for and wondered whether a company should ever use a customer list to endorse candidates.
It's still too early to tell just how much this might affect Expensify's business in the long run, but it's an unknown that Barrett was willing to accept, citing other companies like Patagonia who take active stances on issues. "We're going to defend our values, and we accept the consequences as they come," Barrett said.
The Expensify email stands out for being highly political at a time when some tech companies are starting to rethink how politically-involved they want to be. Most notably, Coinbase's CEO Brian Armstrong recently published a lengthy blogpost on how his company was only going to engage with political issues related to its core mission of promoting cryptocurrency to avoid the "distraction" of other discourse.
Barrett strongly disagrees that you can just ignore politics and not engage with the real world. Those who are choosing not to engage are either comfortable with the status quo or too "cowardly" to stand up for what they believe in, he said.
So far, no employees have resigned over the letter, Barrett says. (Coinbase, by contrast, ended up having more than 5% of its employees take a severance package to leave the company.)
In the meantime, a team of volunteers inside the company has taken up the mantle of responding to the hundreds of replies flooding Barrett's inbox and Twitter feed. "The way we've been approaching every conversation is that everyone who writes cares, and the fact that they care is a good thing that makes them different than most people who don't care," he said.
The test for the business now will be whether it gains or loses customers over politicizing its customer mailing list. But Barrett argues that what's at stake is bigger than his business.
"I think that the more important thing is, what are your duties as a citizen to make to participate in the political process? And I don't think that companies should just refuse to participate because of some unwritten rule that they can't," he said. "Every CEO has a choice to do something, and to do nothing is a choice. I choose to do something."
- Tech companies normally rally behind social and political causes ... ›
- Big Tech's plan to save the election - Protocol ›
- Here are the top political donors from Amazon, Apple, Facebook ... ›
- Expensify's CEO emailed users to encourage them to 'vote for Biden ... ›
- Ping-Pong and catered lunches are back — for the few SF tech startups willing to reopen - Protocol ›
Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.