Bradley Tusk’s ‘Saving startups from death by politics’: how-to manual on life, politics and business

For those of you who haven’t heard of Bradley Tusk yet – well, he’s the one who brought you Uber. He didn’t write a code for the app or launched first Uber cars in San Francisco, but he was the one who saved the company from death by politics. And that’s only a fraction of what his new book is about.

Bradley Tusk's "The Fixer: saving startups from death by politics" | Chicago NewsTusk opens it up from the most favorite spot of all reporters – right from where the action is.

I was sitting at a United gate, hoping for a standby seat on the one flight to New York not yet canceled. My phone lit up. Travis.

“You see what De Blasio just did?”

It was the summer of 2015, when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a legislation to cap Uber’s growth at one per cent a year. Basically, kill the business. There were a few weeks before the proposed bill was to be heard at City Council, and just a few votes at City Hall against it.

Two minutes later, Travis and I talked again.

“This is bad,” I told him.

“No shit. If it happens in New York, the whole world is going to see it. Which means it could happen anywhere. We can’t let that happen.”

Now, we all know how that unfolded. Uber won. And expanded to 785 metropolitan areas worldwide.

Tusk’s book is a how-to manual for not only startups (or venture capitalists, for that matter), it’s generally a “how-to guide” on how to understand, communicate and influence – in life, business or politics.

“No one gives you anything by accident”

However, it turns out that accident itself drove Tusk into politics.

I didn’t know anyone in politics… Except my Dad knew one guy – Brien O’Dwyer – whose law firm represented the carpenters’ union.

In 1992, carpenters were in charge to get the stage at the Madison Square Garden ready for The Democratic National Convention. The party provided the union with a set of passes to use as they saw fit. One of those passes got Tusk into the game.

Starting from the internship at the Philadelphia City Hall, he moved to be the communications director of the newly elected U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, from whom he learnt what press and PR meant to politicians.

Whoever is running Chuck’s press operation is like a crack dealer. He or she has what Chuck desperately needs and if that person decides to turn off the spigot, Chuck is like a junkie without a fix.

Tusk goes into great detail describing Schumer’s press operations. Unlike now, when Chuck Schumer is the most powerful democrat in Washington, back in 1998 he was just the junior senator whose party was in the minority.

We’d have to invent stuff to get attention – naming a blue ribbon commission to study the perils of tooth decay or writing a letter to Ford Motor Company to protest the rising cost of windshield wiper fluid.

Sundays were favorite days for Chuck Schumer to hold press conferences. These were the days when he could control the narrative. According to Tusk, they would write the letter, and then use a press conference to announce it.

Actually communicating with them was so beside the point, I’d literally forgotten to send them our letter of protest. Once the story came and went, I was onto the next one. It got so bad, I had to attach a Post-it note to my computer monitor saying, “Remember to send the letter.

For Tusk, the key was “using a communications role to gain attention and then pivot to something else before it was too late.” And so he did, joining the office of the newly elected New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Holding Bloomberg’s work in high regard, when an opportunity to run the whole state arrived – Tusk answered.

“It’s all fun and games before someone goes to jail”

At the age of 29, Bradley Tusk held the most powerful unelected position in Illinois, while having no connections to the state, “other than having gone to law school in Chicago.” He didn’t know Rod Blagojevich, except for meeting him at a dinner a few years earlier.

As far as I can tell, there are two explanations for why I got this job: one benign and one less so. The benign one goes something like this: I was young and being deputy governor was a career-making job for me. That meant I’d be willing to tolerate a lot of nonsense from Rod that any rational adult wouldn’t.

Tusk admits that another explanation wasn’t clear to him until seven years later, after an indictment of Blagojevich and the others arrested with him.

I was still a naïve kid. I didn’t understand the cesspool of Illinois politics. I didn’t know the players. And in retrospect, a few things were absent from my job portfolio: hiring, grants, and contracts. But if you’re looking to execute a massive pay-to-play scheme – auctioning off jobs, contracts, and grants to the biggest campaign donors – it’s all you care about. Rod and his cronies figured they could do what they wanted – and let me worry about running the state – I’d never notice.

It’s also quite fascinating to read about Tusk’s notes on Blagojevich himself. According to Tusk, he rarely went to the office, preferring to work from home.

“Work” meaning a loose mix of a few phone calls, watching SportsCenter, reading long biographies of Napoleon, preparing to go for a run, going for a run, stretching after the run, and then showering for at least 90 minutes after that.

At some point it got so bad, Tusk had to take a call for Blagojevich. After 9/11, every couple of months state governors would get on a call to take the drill to declare state of emergency and activate National Guard. That morning Blagojevich had far more important work to do – fighting with his father-in-law, Dick Mell, over a fundraiser Mell scheduled. That became Blagojevich’s main problem, and he refused to get on a call. This is when Tusk took it for him, as Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Another occasion Tusk brings up is negotiation on the state’s budget. While there were several bills that needed Blagojevich’s review, he had to go to see his tailor to pick out fabrics for his three new suits instead.

Tusk was the one running the state, and Blagojevich was the one “playing.” Until one time when he slipped up and asked Tusk to extort Rahm Emanuel, who at that time was a congressman representing the northwest side of Chicago. Tusk remembers that call. Emanuel was upset.

“The two million. For the school. In my district. Rod promised them money a year ago. And he’s still jerking them around.”

Tusk promised to look into it for him, and went to John Harris, Rod’s chief of staff at that time, who sent him back to Rod.

“Tell Rahm he needs to get the fundraiser done first,” Rod told me. “Then we’ll release the grant.”

After the conversation Tusk called Bill Quinlan, Rod’s general counsel. Quinlan said he’d take care of it. When Rod was arrested, Tusk got a call from the FBI, as attempted extortion was one of the charges. It turned out the call Tusk made to Quinlan was the decision that preserved his freedom and reputation.

These are just a few snapshots of what the book is about. “The fixer” is dedicated to disrupting the usual way of life, and winning. Turning perception into reality, and controlling the narrative. The book is a must-read for everyone who’s in politics, PR or business, and is a true treasure for everyone who’s just stepping foot into the door.

“In my world, I sit at a very niche intersection of technology and politics. When you’re trying to disrupt something in a big way, by definition, if you succeed you’re going to get a lot of push-back. No one thanks you for disrupting them, they punch you in the nose,” Tusk said in the interview with Chicago News.

And while at times his book is raw, and picture he’s painting is not always pleasant, this is a must-read for anyone who’d like to think outside the box and make the world better.

P.S. If you’re curious what Tusk is after now, it’s mobile voting. Read more in our full interview online: