The talented Mr Green: How FWD.us lost New York, Elon Musk, and the tech moral high ground
At the end of April, FWD.us president Joe Green and angel investor Ron Conway, a FWD.us supporter, convened a lunch meeting with about 40 members of New York City’s tech community at the swish offices of venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. Green and Conway’s intent was to convince people to get behind the new lobby group, which has made immigration reform its top priority and is said to have at least $20 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the bank. It intends to raise a total of $50 million for its lobbying efforts. Part of the purpose of the meeting was to ask for financial contributions.
It did not go well. In fact, several people who were at the meeting have described it as a mess, with one person calling it an “unmitigated disaster.”
The audience was eager to see meaningful immigration reform and had been encouraged by Zuckerberg’s op-ed in the Washington Post announcing the formation of FWD.us, published a couple of weeks earlier. In the editorial, the Facebook CEO spoke the language of entrepreneurs. “In a knowledge economy, the most important resources are the talented people we educate and attract to our country,” Zuckerberg wrote. “A knowledge economy can scale further, create better jobs and provide a higher quality of living for everyone in our nation.”
The goodwill generated by Zuckerberg’s prose, however, was soon laid to waste. News had already broken about two controversial TV ads paid for by FWD.us organizations. One, a 30-second spot in support of Alaskan Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, advocated for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Another, a one-minute spot in support of South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham, a Republican, endorsed the Keystone Pipeline, which is anathema to environmentalists. Thanks to the ads, many in the crowd that day were deeply skeptical of FWD’s approach, and what they found out from Green did nothing to ease their concerns.
Green was unapologetic about the strategy, intended to give cover to senators who might vote for comprehensive immigration reform but could consequently be at odds with their conservative constituents. Green’s message to the group was: “This is the way things get done in Washington.” He came across as pompous, said one person who attended the meeting, as if he were lecturing the techies on how politics works.
“I was surprised at how sure about their ways he was,” says Josh Miller, founder of New York-based startup Branch, who later wrote a scathing editorial about FWD.us. “In service of noble causes,” Miller wrote, “FWD.us is employing questionable lobbying techniques, misleading supporters, and not being transparent about the underlying values and long-term intentions of the organization.”
Lerer Ventures managing director Kenneth Lerer, who wasn’t at the meeting and chose not to contribute to FWD because it was giving to Republican and Democratic senators who voted against background checks on the recent gun control bill, says FWD’s “political strategy is incompetent.” The Huffington Post and NowThis News co-founder says, “Whatever they were hoping to gain with the money that they were going to spend has probably been neutralized to a great extent because of the bad press that they’ve received.”*
The meeting has not produced dividends for FWD. In theory, New York, a city of immigrants whose tech companies are hurting for talent just as much as those in California, should be as important to FWD as is Silicon Valley. It is certainly equally invested in the immigration debate, a point emphasized by the leading role New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Partnership for a New American Economy have taken in the national discussion.
FWD, however, does not enjoy widespread support in the city. Of the 36 high-profile supporters listed on its website – a list that includes such luminaries as Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, John Doerr, Reid Hoffman,* and Marissa Mayer – only one is based in New York: Union Square Ventures founder Fred Wilson.
New York, though, is just a symptom of a wider problem for FWD.us. A bipartisan organization that was greeted with excitement by the tech industry on its April 10 launch has lurched from misstep to misstep, despite enlisting the help of Washington political veterans from both sides of the aisle. Its early moves have alienated some of its core constituents and supporters, caused head-scratching in Washington, and resulted in questioning of just what kind of an operation FWD is running.
In a sentiment echoed by several of his peers, a well-known Silicon Valley investor who has a longstanding interest in environmental issues has said: “The FWD.us fiasco feels like a case of geeks playing fantasy baseball who then all of a sudden found themselves thrust into the major leagues. I am amazed at how poorly advised and unprepared they were.”
Influential stakeholders in Silicon Valley didn't just balk at the cynical play book. It was worse: They were embarrassed at the clumsy execution.
A collage of FWD.us founders, featured on the group's website
In the space of two months, FWD has sprung two leaks that pre-empted news of its launch and faced a backlash that cost it the support of one of its most respected backers. In the same swoop, its controversial tactics have brought its mission under intense scrutiny, shifting the media’s attention from the immigration debate to the role FWD itself has played. While attempting to be pragmatic by engaging both Republicans and Democrats through means that its supporters claim are politically savvy, it has effectively endorsed issues that clash with Silicon Valley’s largely liberal ideals. Meanwhile, all the moves by its inexperienced founder, who talks a better game than he has so far played, suggest the organization already needs to do some drastic repair work.
The more we researched this story, conducting interviews and private discussions with many senior investors, CEOs, and tech-political folks, the more FWD’s problems pointed back to the man at the helm: Joe Green. The fact is, most people in the tech industry know 29-year-old Green only because of the one well-peddled anecdote about him: that he was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate in college and that he decided to follow his passion for politics instead of joining Facebook, a detail that has been well covered in the national press, and of which Green is apparently never shy of reminding his interlocutors. A closer look at Green, however, reveals a political novice with ideas, energy, and a talent for sales, but a thin track record when it comes to matters of business or politics.
To get a better sense of FWD’s motivations and its leader’s vision, we requested interviews with both Green and Zuckerberg. FWD declined both requests. Numerous attempts to reach Green through other channels proved futile. We instead had to chart FWD’s rocky path from inception to the current day through a variety of independent sources, taking in 34 people over the course of two weeks. What we found is that the story of FWD so far is one of disappointments, disillusionment, and, for better or worse, staying the course under fire.
On March 22, 2013 – nearly three weeks before Zuckerberg’s official announcement of FWD.us – the yet-to-be-named lobby group suffered the indignity of having the news of its existence broken in a story on San Francisco Chronicle’s website under a headline that led with the word “Excloo!”
In the piece, reporter Carla Marinucci correctly predicted that Green would helm an “independent expenditure group” funded by Zuckerberg that would focus on a range of issues, including education and immigration reform. She also correctly pointed out that the group had retained the services of hard-line Republican strategists Jon Lerner, founder of political strategy company Red Sea, and Rob Jesmer, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Before it even knew its name, FWD had sprung a leak.
Two weeks later, its pipes were again out of order. In a prospectus leaked to Politico, Green prematurely listed Bill Gates and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen as founding members of the group, which had the working title “Human Capital.” (Gates has since signed on as a FWD.us supporter; Andreessen hasn’t.)* In the prospectus, Green listed three reasons why tech influencers can be a powerful political force. Short version: their massive distribution channels, money, and popularity among Americans.
Green was moved to apologize for the statements, which suggested that FWD’s supporters might use their companies to promote the group’s messages – a potential breach of broadcasting and campaign finance laws. “I regret some of the language in the email was poorly-chosen and could give a misimpression of the views and aspirations of this organization and those associated with it,” Green said to Politico in what is the last apology his group has issued.
But more pain awaited the group once it actually launched. After a honeymoon period that lasted for as long as the group didn’t do anything in public – a total of 16 days – it ultimately faced a fierce backlash over the fossil fuel-friendly ads it funded for Sen. Graham and Sen. Begich, each of which ran for a week in each senator’s home state. Liberal blog Think Progress first brought the ads to the world’s attention and left-wing groups pounced on the opportunity to capitalize on the issue, a move that would help them drive membership.
Then on May 10, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and chairman of SolarCity, announced he was quitting FWD. Musk’s former PayPal colleague David Sacks, the founder and CEO of Yammer, parted ways with FWD at the same time.
Elon Musk withdrew from FWD.us in the wake of ads that supported oil drilling. Photo by NASA
Musk is especially respected in the tech industry for being able to navigate complicated government issues in the highly regulated sectors of motor transport, space exploration, and solar energy, all of which are directly relevant to his companies. His defection was much more than an empty protest from an idealistic Silicon Valleyite. The man knows his way around Capitol Hill.
In a February interview with Bloomberg, Musk said he has made about 200 trips to Washington DC, during which he has met with about half of the 100 members of the Senate and about 150 members of the House. While he has not made a public statement about his defection from FWD, he has apparently privately expressed an objection to engaging in cynical manipulation of the political system when causes should be fought on their own merits. Such a view meshes with what he told Bloomberg about what he has learned about Washington in recent years.
“My overall impression of Washington is that it is much less corrupt than people think it is,” he said in the interview. “That's not to say there is not some amount of that that goes on, but there is a preponderance of leading House members and senators [who] actually are quite idealistic and do care about doing the right thing.”
It is not surprising, then, that FWD’s political gamesmanship may have grated with Musk.
When news broke of Musk and Sacks’ move, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, a committed advocate for immigration reform, tweeted: “Good to see people with principles. Wish FWD.us would admit mistake instead of defending their stance.”
As determined as its critics may be, however, FWD also has ardent defenders. Todd Harris, a senior strategist for Sen. Marco Rubio, a leading voice on immigration reform and one of eight senators who authored the leading bill on comprehensive immigration now before Senate, has nothing but praise for the organization. FWD bankrolled the group Americans for a Conservative Direction, which paid for a pro-immigration reform ad featuring clips of Sen. Rubio. The ad ran in six states at about the same time as the ads for Sen. Graham and Sen. Begich. While told from a Republican perspective, the ad focused solely on immigration and passed without criticism from Silicon Valley, or anywhere else.
“There are two types of outside groups that get involved in Washington,” Harris says. “There are the groups that are primarily concerned with making their funders and board members feel good about themselves, and then there are the groups that are actually trying to get something done.” FWD, Harris says, clearly falls into the latter category.
FWD has played a critical role in moving the immigration debate forward, Harris says, in part because of the controversial ads. “They’ve been very effective in communicating the substance of the bill, particularly to conservative audiences who are open to the idea of immigration reform but only if it comes with strict security and enforcement mechanisms,” Harris says. “No-one was doing that before and it’s been a critical part of the progress that has been made.”
Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum says FWD.us has helped advance the immigration debate
Ali Noorani, who runs the nonpartisan National Immigration Forum, based in Washington DC, emailed a statement to PandoDaily defending FWD’s strategy on the basis of connecting with a wider group of voters. “At times the FWD.us message may not resonate with voters in Silicon Valley,” Noorani said, “but, that message resonates quite well with voters in Missouri Valley. And, it is the voters in Missouri Valley who are going to move the votes we need to secure bipartisan immigration reform.”
Noorani said he met with a group of growers on Capitol Hill last week who mentioned hearing, for the first time, pro-immigration reform ads on conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh’s show in rural Pennsylvania. “To my knowledge, those ads are a product of FWD.us,” Noorani said.
At the very least, FWD’s oil-friendly ads might be considered odd when considered against the backdrop of the group’s initial mission of passing an immigration bill. Gun control advocates, for instance, aren’t running immigration ads to prop up their allies. Nor is the National Rifle Association. By the same token, the US Chamber of Commerce isn’t running pro-gun ads for their allies on tax policy. It’s possible, too, that reluctant senators could have convinced their conservative constituents that immigration reform makes sense by basing their pitches on passages from the Bible. One obvious contender would be John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
At the same time, the places where FWD is directing its money based on its “this is how Washington works” philosophy doesn’t quite compute. Sen. Graham, who is one of the Gang of Eight senators who authored the comprehensive bill, is likely to vote to for comprehensive reform, while Sen. Begich, a conservative Democrat, might need some persuading to vote for a party-sanctioned comprehensive bill. And Sen. Rubio, the beneficiary of FWD’s biggest ad spend and the public face of the bill, is likely to vote for it, too, assuming it doesn’t get too watered down in the legislative process.
Meanwhile, one important senator in the immigration debate is so far conspicuously absent from FWD’s maneuvering. Of all the senators a tech lobby group should be seeking out, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas should be at the top of the list. Sen. Moran is the lead author of the Startup Act 3.0, which includes provisions – including a “startup visa” – that are perhaps most favorable to the tech industry of any bill so far put before the Senate. He is also one of the most active members of Congress when it comes to reaching out to Silicon Valley. More importantly, Sen. Moran favors a “piecemeal” approach to immigration reform, which means he is yet to be convinced that voting for a comprehensive bill, like the one put forward by Sen. Rubio and company, is a good idea.
However, when contacted by PandoDaily to determine whether or not FWD has contacted Sen Moran, the Senator’s office said: “FWD.us has yet to reach out to Senator Moran or his staff.”
Nevertheless, FWD spokesperson Kate Hansen says the organization is unfazed by the fallout and is pushing ahead. “We recognize that not everyone will always agree with or be pleased by our strategy – and we're grateful for the continued support of our dedicated founders and major contributors, all of whom are supporting FWD.us entirely in their capacity as individuals,” Hansen said in a written statement to PandoDaily. “FWD.us remains totally committed to supporting a bipartisan policy agenda that will boost the knowledge economy, including comprehensive immigration reform.”
Joe Green on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt NY
It’s April 29, and Joe Green is sitting in an armchair on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, a sky-blue sponsor screen behind him offsetting the white of his FWD.us T-shirt, which bears the slogan: “Moving the Knowledge Economy Forward.” Green’s bushy brown hair gushes sideways, and his hands are expressive in an outsized way as he leans forward with a slight slouch over the iPad that sits on his lap. This is Green’s first public appearance as the president of FWD, and he’s here to tell the audience of startups and investors about the lobby group’s efforts towards passing immigration reform. Later, he will walk off the stage and into the now infamous meeting at Union Square Ventures. First, however, he wants to say a few words about himself.
Reaching for a bottle of water to his right, Green rattles off his credentials. “I started out working in political campaigns,” he says as he twists off the water’s bottle cap, “but ended up very accidentally in tech.” Takes a swig of water. “I founded a company called Causes on Facebook” – finishes swallowing – “and then a company called NationBuilder, which builds software for political campaigns.” Looks down. “So I’ve had this experience for about the last decade of being a political guy but working in tech.”
It’s a digestible and impressive-sounding summary of his work until now, and Green spends little time lingering on his bio before he continues to discuss the importance of rallying the tech community behind immigration reform.
Green was described in similar terms in a recent New Yorker story about Silicon Valley’s growing civic-mindedness by George Packer. After volunteering on John Kerry’s political campaigns in Arizona and Nevada, Packer writes, Green headed to Silicon Valley and started two technology companies. Writes Packer:
“In 2007, he and Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, launched Causes, a Facebook application that helps grass-roots organizations and nonprofits raise money. Last year, Green created NationBuilder, a software platform that provides digital tools for political campaigns and community organizers. Green was better at starting things than at running them, and he was eventually removed from the leadership of both companies, the second one this past February. (Green says that his departures were voluntary.)”
The trouble with both Green’s description of himself and Packer’s potted biography is that neither of them are quite accurate. PandoDaily’s discussions with numerous CEOs and investors tell a quite different story.
It is true that Green worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, but he did so as a volunteer door-knocker in two states that proved inconsequential to the presidential race. Arizona, in particular, was a shoo-in for the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, who won 54.9 percent of the vote in the state. The people who worked on Democratic campaigns for the general election in red states like Arizona tended to be locals or volunteers, a senior 2004 Kerry campaign organizer told PandoDaily. He didn’t recognize Green’s name. The race was tighter in Nevada, where Bush got 50.47 percent of the vote compared to Kerry’s 47.88 percent. Still, compared to, say, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who was the coordinator of online organizing for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Green’s standing in political campaigns was decidedly lowly.
In 2005, Green started Essembly, described at the time as “Friendster for politics,” which in 2007 morphed into Causes. Green spent four years as the head of Causes without being able to turn the company into a gainful enterprise. He was, as Packer suggests, eventually helped out of the job and went on to join NationBuilder. Green, however, was not the creator of NationBuilder, which the New Yorker, even with its vaunted fact-checking department, somehow managed to get wrong. Indeed, that honor goes to Jim Gilliam, who had started NationBuilder in 2009, two years before Green joined the team. When he joined, Green managed to negotiate the title of “co-founder” for himself and helped the company raise money from Andreessen Horowitz, which is now NationBuilder’s principal investor. Ben Horowitz sits on the company’s board.
FWD.us president Joe Green was in and out of NationBuilder, the company he said he co-founded, in the space of 11 months
Green’s time at NationBuilder, however, was not a happy one. He lasted 11 months at the company before being forced out and given a soft landing at Andreessen Horowitz, where he assumed a role as “Entrepreneur in Residence.” At both Causes and NationBuilder, Green had proven adept at selling his vision, but inept at executing on it, resulting in what one source described as “weird chaos” at the companies. Green stayed at the venture capital firm for six months, even while living in Los Angeles, 358 miles from Andreessen Horowitz’s Menlo Park offices, before starting FWD.us. It may be significant that no-one from Andreessen Horowitz is listed as a supporter of FWD.us.
In essence, Green has had the good fortune to “fail up” during his career in the Valley, a point apparently not lost among even the people who have been backing him as the frontman for FWD.us. Multiple sources have told PandoDaily that when investors raised questions about Green’s ability to lead FWD ahead of its formation, the president’s supporters, aware of his record, said that his shortcomings would be shielded by the veteran political operatives that the group had enlisted.
What the tech world has seen of Green so far on the national political stage, however, has likely done little to assuage those investors’ qualms. For instance, Politico has reported that Green has privately described FWD’s bipartisan schemes as “Machiavellian,” which the Oxford English Dictionary will tell you refers to cunning and duplicity in statecraft. Green is thus unselfconsciously admitting a certain pride in the way the group has so far gone about its business. The deep irony here, of course, is that by disclosing a desire for Machiavellianism, Green by definition denies himself the dubious honor of the title.
PandoDaily’s questions to FWD about Green’s background elicited only this response from spokesperson Hansen: “Joe worked full-time on the Kerry campaign in summer and fall 2004 in rural Arizona and Las Vegas.” Regarding Causes and NationBuilder, Hansen said, “he stepped away from Causes after leading it for almost six years, and is still a very active board member of both organizations. He left NationBuilder to pursue political interests, and start FWD.us.”
Opportunity for reform
Many of the people PandoDaily interviewed for this story wondered out loud how Green could be selected to head up a $50 million tech lobby, especially seeing as Zuckerberg is close to people with heavyweight political experience, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who from 1996 to 2001 served as chief of staff to Larry Summers, who was then the United States Secretary of Treasury under President Bill Clinton. Sandberg is also said to have political aspirations of her own beyond Facebook. Sandberg’s offsider, Elliot Schrage, a policy expert who joined Facebook after serving as Google’s vice president for global communications and public affairs, is another person who seems more suited to Green’s role than Green himself.
Mark Zuckerberg reportedly gave $20 million to his friend Green's organization
PandoDaily has learned that FWD.us is in fact Green’s baby, and that he approached his friend Zuck to ask him to fund the project. The uncertainty about Facebook’s role in the organization could turn out to be a problem for Zuckerberg and his company. While FWD and Facebook insist the two groups have an arm’s-length relationship, some in Washington DC don’t see much of a distinction between them. One tech lobbyist told us, “People perceive it as one and the same.” FWD and Facebook share some lobbyists and consultants, including Fierce, Isaokwitz & Blalock, the Glover Park Group, and Joel Kaplan, who heads up policy at Facebook’s Washington office and is also on FWD’s board of advisors.
Green’s inexperience needn’t be a hindrance to running a successful tech lobby group. FWD.us, at this point, has the funds, support, and connections to be able to make things work. But Green, as the founder and visionary, has to bear responsibility for the mistakes the group has so far made. It may well turn out to be true that the group’s strategy is a politically savvy one. It may ultimately help get the immigration bill passed, which everyone involved with FWD says is its number one priority – the reason for all this angst. Indeed, the group must be credited with a win for having its founding member Ruchi Sanghvi, a vice president at Dropbox, testify before the US Senate on the need for immigration reform. It is also clear that FWD has good intentions, and the tech industry’s interests, at heart.
However, if it continues to alienate its own constituents while losing supporters, FWD endangers the tech industry’s good standing in Washington by distorting the political world’s view of Silicon Valley, just as it was beginning to score wins in the capital. In the last 18 months, the Valley has played an important role in quashing the Stop Online Piracy Act and in getting the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act signed into legislation.
The tech world, however, is still regarded with suspicion in some corners of Washington, a result of a cultural clash between the capital’s “move slow and consult” way of operating and the “move fast and break things” mindset of startups and tech companies. Even as Silicon Valley and Washington increasingly recognize that their economic and social interests are converging, these are still tender moments in the relationship. The same holds true for the Valley’s tenuous relationships with labor groups and other progressive forces, important but tenuous allies in the immigration debate who might be put off by FWD’s tacit endorsements of drilling in the Arctic and the Keystone Pipeline. The immigration bill is far from over the line.
Because of its money and big-name backing, as well as its scale and aggressiveness, FWD holds an important position straddling these worlds. While it must respect the rules of the game in Washington, the message coming from the people who should be its supporters is that it needs to be more transparent in its operations while being more humble in its outreach. This is not the time for an upstart group from Silicon Valley to step into Washington as the brash disruptor. Nor is it the time to disenfranchise half an industry that is just coming to grips with its political responsibilities.
There’s a meme in Silicon Valley that ideas are commodities and execution is what matters. If FWD had actually carried out its bipartisan plan – its “Machiavellian schemes,” if you like – with more competency, then it’s likely that its supporters, idealists aside, would have accepted the organization’s moves as part of the compromise necessary for political progress. The way it has worked out, however, is that the most powerful names in the Valley are attached to what looks like a hamfisted attempt by FWD to insert itself into the immigration debate in a way that could potentially hurt the very cause for which it advocates.
Those holding out hope that FWD might change its course, or find a way to deal with the problem of its leader, might be discouraged by the actions of its chief financier in similar situations in the past. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly demonstrated resilience in the face of public outcry. For instance, he refused to fire anyone in the wake of the 2011 Burson-Marsteller scandal, in which two PR hacks conducted an anti-Google smear campaign on the social network’s behalf. Similarly, he stubbornly stayed the course in the face of furious criticism of Facebook’s introduction of its “News Feed” in 2006. We can expect, then, that Green will continue to enjoy Zuckerberg's favor even if FWD.us continues to bleed support.
While it has been an inauspicious beginning for Green and FWD, however, all is not lost. These are still early days, and the group has time to prove that it is a positive force. It hasn’t yet met that standard, and a lot of that responsibility falls on Green. But he has $50 million to prove his doubters and critics wrong.
* Disclosure: Lerer Ventures, Matt Cohler (pictured), Ron Conway, and Marc Andreessen are investors in PandoDaily, as are Reid Hoffman (via the Greylock Discovery Fund), and Jim Breyer (via Accel Partners; also pictured).