Jason Fried Safeguarding your brand in a time of polarized politics
In the new political climate, CEOs need to prepare for a dark moment in the spotlight
IUSED TO BE a political junkie. Like a sports fan who can name any basketball player, I knew who every senator, congressperson, and pundit was. Then, a few years ago, politics started to completely disgust me. I stopped watching the Sunday-morning talk shows, stopped reading political news, stopped paying attention. And I felt better than ever.
But with the recent presidential election, things have changed. I don’t mean my personal interest in politics, which is still at an all-time low. I mean that now, everything is getting tainted by politics.
As a CEO who’d rather not mix business and politics, I’ve recently realized that’s not always possible. Because even if you want to keep them separate, your customers, your employees, and the public at large may not.
For example, there’s a Canadian company called Shopify, which provides a platform that powers hundreds of thousands of online stores around the world. Shopify was recently sucked into a major PR tornado because one of the stores it hosts belongs to the news site Breitbart, which many people believe spreads hate and an unsavory agenda.
When this became widely known, Tobi Lütke, Shopify’s CEO, got more than 10,000 emails, tweets, and messages demanding that Shopify kick Breitbart off its platform. Tobi wrote up a public letter defending the company’s decision to allow it to continue on Shopify (his argument: freedom of speech). That letter was also met by opposition.
The controversy woke me up to how hard it can be for companies to avoid politics these days. What if that happened to us?
I began to think about it. My business partner, David Heinemeier Hansson, and I had a lengthy conversation on the subject. We also convened a meeting of our top managers and team leads. We wanted to talk about what we’d do if we were confronted by a large number of users demanding action because of something on our site that they deemed unreasonable or hurtful.
Unlike Shopify, people use Basecamp privately, so we don’t see what they’re doing with it. But let’s say we weren’t different. Where would we draw the line? If we and the public knew that a certain customer was doing something untoward with Basecamp, how would we respond?
This is an ongoing debate internally. Personally, I’m a live-and-let-live sort. Others are quicker on the kick-them-off trigger. Some are zero-tolerance for anything even borderline offensive.
Some hypotheticals were easy to agree on. For example, if we found out someone was using Basecamp to organize a neo-Nazi rally, that person would be gone. No question.
But that’s an easy call. Many are not so clear-cut. Even pornography was debated. To some, all porn is horrible and exploitative, but others are not comfortable telling consenting adults what they can or can’t do on film. When you really have the debate, you begin to see all the nuance.
Ultimately, we agreed to draw the line at hate. Hate crimes, hate speech. And while even the lines defining hate can be blurry, we played out a variety of situations and everyone came down on the same side on those. So we feel good about that line in the sand.
The debate will continue, and of course everything will be handled on a case-by-case basis. And while I still abhor the state of politics, I found the discussion invigorating and enlightening. I’d recommend all CEOs bring this topic up to their executive and management teams. Get it out in the open. As a company, you’re much better off having these discussions in relative safety before you wake up one morning to discover you’re at the center of the political storm.
its own thicket of red tape, and expansion is a stop-and-start game: In Oregon, for example, Wana and its licensing partner had its products on the shelves of more than 160 dispensaries by the end of last year. Then, the state decided that a different regulator should oversee the industry—forcing dispensaries and product manufacturers to redo their legal paperwork and their quality-testing procedures, and effectively halting most sales of marijuana products for weeks. “This is the kind of thing that just adds a lot of complexity to these out-of-state situations. It’s just very messy,” Whiteman says. “I don’t know whether we were geniuses or idiots for deciding to launch in Oregon when we did. Depends on the day.”
It’s a land grab among Wana and its competitors, all racing to gain loyal customers outside of their home territory to become a national consumer brand. As Wana pushes into Nevada and Oregon and possibly soon Arizona, Whiteman’s hoping to build a reputation for “professional, great products—we’re safe, you can count on us, we’re consistent.” Establish that sort of brand in every state Wana can, her thinking goes, and when marijuana is finally legal on the federal level, the floodgates will open.
But Wana’s entire industry faces an unexpected, if deeply uncertain, federal threat. Since Donald Trump was elected president—on the same day that eight more states decided to legalize or expand legal marijuana—entrepreneurs have swung between blithe optimism and near panic. Republicans often invoke states’ rights, and doing anything to limit the legal- cannabis industry’s growth would hurt business owners and the estimated 100,000-plus jobs they have created. But Trump is unpredictable; in late winter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House spokesman Sean Spicer made comments about cracking down on the legal-weed industry by enforcing federal prohibitions despite state laws legalizing it.
In Wana’s best-case (if most unlikely) scenario, Trump will support full federal legalization; worst case, he’ll try to block both medical and adult-use sales. As of press time, Whiteman and other legalmarijuana entrepreneurs said they were bracing for something in between, with the medical-use market being allowed to remain unchanged, while recreational marijuana is banned. “It’s obviously something we take seriously and are watching closely, but I don’t think panic is called for at this point in time,” Whiteman said in mid-March. “Most people I’m talking to are watching it, but they’re moving forward.”
Edibles are particularly vulnerable on both the state and federal levels, because what makes them so great— they are the most discreet, odorless way to get high—is also what makes them dangerous: They can easily be mistaken for regular food. “For most people who have had a bad experience with cannabis, it’s because of edibles,” says Stahura, the BDS analyst. Some legal marijuana states have already banned them outright; Colorado responded to these concerns by mandating childproof packaging and stamps on every individual unit of marijuana-infused food. Whiteman claims to welcome more regulation— particularly national rules— citing the typical pro-legalization pitch. “People are going to continue to make edibles and use them. The scary and unsafe part comes from people making them at home, not testing them,” she says.
Being a leader of the pack in the early days of a new industry doesn’t mean there’s any guarantee Wana will remain there. As it saw with its predecessor, EdiPure, these young companies are fragile. Competition for national success could come from unexpected places, like California: The huge, so-far medical- only state will start allowing recreational sales next year.
So Wana is trying to do everything it can to adapt and mature, quickly. It has created a system to send food scientists and quality-assurance personnel to its partners’ facilities to ensure that the out- of-state versions of Wana gummies have the same tangy sweetness and legal THC ratio. Product development has led to hard candies called Jewels, a new version of one of Wana’s first products, as well as extended-release capsules. Whiteman is also exploring microdose lozenges, with smaller amounts of THC per item.
While John oversees the day-to- day production, most of Nancy’s time is spent out of the kitchen. This week alone, she’s taking a day trip to Arizona, trying to sign up another licensing partner. In coming days, she’ll meet with her accountant to discuss the possibility of transitioning Wana from an LLC to a C-corp. Soon she could be traveling to Maryland and Massachusetts and Illinois and Pennsylvania, discussing more licensing deals and helping her new partners set up operations.
In short, Whiteman will continue to do everything she can to make her sugary, weed-infused candies as legitimate and compliant and regulated and boring as possible—while barely taking a moment to kick back and sample the fruits of her labor. “I’m such a lightweight when it comes to edibles,” she admits. “I’m very busy—and I have to focus.”
Jason Fried is a co-founder of Basecamp (formerly 37signals), a Chicago-based software company.
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