Last summer, not long after Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president, his recently installed campaign manager, Stephen K. Bannon, met with top officials from the Republican National Committee to discuss management of the general election.
Trump’s staff had remained unusually small throughout the grueling primaries — a compactness, his advisers believed, that had given them a nimble edge. Now most Republican officials expected the Trump team to expand as it began to oversee the thousands of Republican staff members, state officials and consultants who would be ground troops in the coming political war.
But when Bannon met with RNC officials, he informed them that a major expansion was not going to happen.
The Trump campaign, he said, intended to remain sparse and decentralized. Borrowing a Silicon Valley mantra from Facebook, he told his shocked listeners that “your job is to move fast and break things,” according to a person who was present. “Figure out what needs doing, and then just do it. Don’t wait for permission.”
His audience was surprised. Conventional political wisdom advocated a robust and elaborate campaign hierarchy.
But Bannon demanded the opposite. Winning, he said, required tactics and ideas — like distributed decision-making; quick experimentation and execution rather than thoughtful deliberation; learning from left-leaning advocacy groups and video game companies — that were drawn from the management playbooks of Silicon Valley startups.
After that meeting, many thought Bannon’s strategy was crazy, the person who was present said. Then Trump won the election. And now we can argue that Trump is, in many ways, the first genuine Silicon Valley startup candidate and president.
President Barack Obama may have embraced technology, weaponized social media and sought advice from the co-founders of Facebook and LinkedIn. But he was ultimately a traditional campaigner and manager. It is Trump’s team who, surprisingly, have embraced the philosophy of disruption and the management styles of Silicon Valley, and who have sought to imitate the tactics that have powered companies like Uber and Amazon.
“Trump is the Silicon Valley candidate in every way except that the ideology is flipped,” said Sam Altman, a prominent technology leader, chief executive of Y Combinator and a major Hillary Clinton donor. “He’s an outsider. He took on a system he thought was broken and then disregarded the rules; he got to know his users well and tested his product early and iterated rapidly. That’s the startup playbook. That’s exactly what we tell our startups to do.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether Trump will successfully transition from a startup to a mature commander-in-chief. Just as Uber and other young tech firms have stumbled while growing, so Trump seems, right now, in over his head at the White House.
But understanding these early missteps — and how startup thinking vaulted Trump into power — is important, because it gives us a lens into the strengths and weaknesses of management techniques that are increasingly being imitated by other industries around the world.
Put differently, the president’s success has demonstrated the strength of the startup philosophy. But is it a good or a bad thing if Trump becomes the first political unicorn?
The irony is that many technologists abhor Trump and his beliefs. Silicon Valley overwhelmingly voted and raised funds for Clinton, and tech workers have angrily protested his immigration ban. At the New Work Summit, a gathering of top technology executives hosted by The New York Times this week, participants strongly complained that their industry should not be associated with, or held accountable for, Trump’s victory.
But the fact remains that he is a prime example of the disruptive forces that the tech industry celebrates. At the most basic level, Trump’s embrace of technology — the millions of dollars he has raised through online donations, and his capacity to mobilize huge crowds through email and drive news through Twitter blasts — is crucial to his unexpected political success.
And his team’s embrace of Silicon Valley philosophy goes much deeper. As Trump’s campaign gained steam, for instance, top officials began a dedicated effort to study the tactics of successful digital advocacy groups, particularly the left-leaning Moveon.org, as well as #BlackLivesMatter, to reverse engineer methods for rapidly mobilizing voters.
His campaign also reached out to video game companies to learn how to make addictive content. During the race, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with Gabriel Leydon, founder of a company in Palo Alto, California, named MZ, previously known as Machine Zone, which created the highly popular games Mobile Strike and Game of War: Fire Age. Leydon, one of the biggest online advertisers, agreed to share insights about digital marketing tactics with the Trump campaign. (In a statement, MZ said it never formally worked for Trump.)
The influence of startup philosophy on Trump’s team extends to day-to-day management. The campaign and the White House have looked to tech industry management techniques to empower staff members to start policy initiatives, to conduct rapid digital tests, and to push fundraising and advertising campaigns without seeking authorization from senior officials.
In contrast to the methodical Obama White House and the Clinton campaign, where tweets often needed approval from at least three officials before they were posted, members of the Trump team could dream up ads or email blasts almost without oversight. At its peak, his campaign was running 60,000 different online advertisements per day to see which phrases and images outperformed others.
However, the most significant connection between Trump and Silicon Valley thinking is how thoroughly he embodies the “disruption thesis” that has propelled so many emerging technology firms. Trump’s team has deliberately worked to remove the traditional gatekeepers — the big donors, the political parties, the advocacy groups and the news media — that have, in the past, often determined political viability.
A senior campaign official said the strategy “sidestepped the power brokers the same way Uber sidestepped taxi dispatchers,” and asserted that politics as practiced by Trump was part of a revolution that started in technology and was now spreading to other industries and governments around the world.
Many within Silicon Valley dislike this idea. “President Trump is not a disrupter, but is self-serving and often dishonest,” Clay M. Christensen, a father of disruption theory and the author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” said in an email. “Disruptive innovations make products more affordable and accessible so that many more people can use things that historically were only available to the rich and skilled.”
Yet, even by that measure, Trump, who attracted many first-time voters, and who was elected with a big boost from Americans without college degrees, seems to fit the bill.
Which all presents a question: If the playbook was so successful in electing Trump, why is he stumbling now? Why has the Silicon Valley mentality failed to thrive in Washington?
It might be that Trump simply needs to evolve to the next level of tech industry thinking. And, in fact, there is a ready playbook for how startups transition into mature firms. Google, for instance, began floundering when it reached about 200 employees. So the company’s founders brought in a more established leader, Eric Schmidt, to “be a bit of chaperone, providing adult supervision,” as Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, explained in 2001. When Facebook’s workforce hit 1,800 in 2008, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, hired Sheryl Sandberg, a seasoned manager, as chief operating officer to rein in the firm’s freewheeling, decentralized culture.
We’re seeing a similar shift in the White House. After Trump’s immigration ban caused widespread confusion at airports and within federal agencies last month, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, put in effect a formal process for rolling out executive orders. When the president was preparing for his address to Congress last week, his team used a formal process to review the script. Republican leaders are pushing the White House to bring on more aides with prior governing experience. As at Facebook and Google, a hierarchy is being built.
But for many within the technology industry, this new, more mature White House is cause for concern. “I think most people don’t want him to succeed at all,” said Laszlo Bock, who until last year was a senior vice president at Google. “No matter how Trump manages the White House, what he believes in is the opposite of Silicon Valley values. We don’t want him to learn from us.”