20 Oct 2020 c.e.
Mission Dirt

This blogpost is going to be a bit of departure from previous Basic Bitch posts. I thought a good deal about whether or not this is something that I wanted to write about -- airing "dirt" about the internal org conflicts of somewhere you've worked in the past is generally considered passe, for good reason. Reflecting on it a bit however, I realized that if you are hiring me and it's not for the type of thinking, consideration, and insight that I'm about to drop here, then one or both of us is definitely getting a bad deal.

The man who 'runs Coinbase', Brian Armstrong, has been making a bit of an ass of himself lately by stumping about his "mission culture" and how important it is that anyone who works for him or on his projects is Onboard with the Mission. If you're not onboard, you should leave.

On its own, this isn't really much worth talking about. This isn't anything particularly new, or interesting. However, if you've at all been paying attention to the broader temperature of what's actually going on at tech companies, especially tech companies in San Francisco and the Valley, you'll know that "how entwined are politics and the work I do every day for a salary" has been a pretty big, hot button issue for a while now.

In fact, we had the politics and business question come up at Square, while I worked there on the CashApp team.

I worked at Square a few months in 2018. I was a software engineer on the newly formed bitcoin 'department' of the CashApp. This story doesn't really have anything to do with me or my responsibilities at Square, if anything I was a fairly outside observer.

Growth Hacking Interchange

The crux of the story that I'm going to relate involve one of the 'growth hack' initiatives that CashApp had recently launched. See, CashApp is a for-profit organization -- their goal is to make more revenue on their existing services. One way that money transmitters, like Square, make money is on something called 'interchange'. Interchange is tied directly to debit / credit card purchases -- every time that you a consumer, swipe a credit card, the institution that issued you that card takes a small cut of the total amount that you're paying.

For what I assume are obvious reasons, CashApp issues a debit card that you can use to spend your CashApp balance at any point of sale terminal. Yes, it's extremely convenient for you to be able to spend your CashApp balance with a card. It's also a form of revenue for the org.

It makes sense then that as a product manager on CashApp, you'd want to increase the number and frequency of CashApp card swipes that are happening. This is where brilliant growth hacking minds come in and figure out how to make using the CashApp card the preferred card of any consumer, and also a way to drive people to go ahead and get a CashApp card in the first place. Most credit cards, like Chase's Sapphire program or AmEx, drive card usage by offering to pay the consumer back a small fraction of the interchange they make on card swipes in the form of Points or Rewards or CashBack. It cuts into the profit margin but pushes total volume of card usage, which overall results in higher revenues. That's more money for everyone.

CashApp doesn't offer a rewards program, but they're still competing with those other rewards programs for those swipes (in theory). It's worth noting that debit cards typically don't offer any points or cashback on that interchange. There maybe technical reasons for this (maybe debit cards get a lower interchange rate? There's a big history here around checks at one point having an interchange rate but eventually the Fed stepped in and said "no checks won't have interchange". Maybe they did the same thing when debit cards got big?).

Anyway. The way CashApp went about competing with points programs was quite ingenious. Cash introduced a discount program called Boosts. Boosts are small 'badge' that you add to your CashApp card in the mobile app. The badges give your card a 'power up', of sorts, in the form of a dollar off of coffee at Blue Bottle or 5% off of your groceries at Whole Foods (up to a certain dollar amount), or a few dollars off of a sandwich at Chik-Fil-A. I don't really know the details of how long the Boosts are good for, or how many times you can use them. I think there were some limits around how often you could change your Boost and how many times it was usable in a day. Boosts are definitely still happening, just last week CashApp ran a promo where you could get 99% off of a purchase up to $50.

Here's the thing about Boosts. They look like they're ads or paid promotions from the institution that they give you a discount for, and maybe today many of them are cross collabs with a bunch of brands. In the summer of 2018, however, when Boosts first got launched, most if not all of them were paid for by the advertising/growth budget of the CashApp org. They're the loss leader that, hopefully, leads to more card usage, which in turn leads to more revenue. Which, yeah, that's how advertising works. It's a particularly brilliant feature however that they could, at some point, be sponsored and paid for by a brand that wanted exposure. But that's just icing.

The Controversy

I'm not exactly clear on what the genesis of the issue was, but at some point, someone at Square made it known that it was pretty terrible that We, Square, as an organization, were promoting Chik-Fil-A as a boost in the CashApp. The reason for this being that Chik-Fil-A is a notoriously anti-LGBTQ organization (or at least was in 2018)[1], or at least that their executives were funding anti-LGBTQ Christian organizations.

This is a fair point. Chik-Fil-A wasn't paying Square to promote their brand in the app. The project managers of CashApp had looked at the numbers, or the spend patterns, or the demographics, of CashApp users and decided that Chik-Fil-A was a good, logical, attractive Boost to offer CashApp card users. The way I found out about this was because at some point we had a monthly CashApp org meeting where the chief CashApp guy, let's call him Brian, took some time to explain why the CashApp product team was going to continue to prioritize business decisions over and above other, more political, considerations. It was pretty obvious that it had never occurred to the people deciding what companies and products to promote in Boosts had even remembered or been aware of the potential controversy that Chik-Fil-A posed, but now that they were aware of it, Brian's message was pretty clear that there was no way that that would have prevented them from making the decision to include Chik-Fil-A, as 'the numbers' were clearly in favor of them being a good business to offer a discount on.

I think there might have been a bit about how we were also going to be donating money to LGBTQ causes to offset any harm that promoting Chik-Fil-A in the app had caused, but I also might be making this up, so don't quote me on it.

In fact, don't quote me on any of this.

There was one thing that I wanted to ask Brian during the Q&A, but lost my nerve on for obvious reasons, and that was whether or not he viewed himself as a member of the LGBTQ community. I think it's easy to make decisions for others if it's not your own interests that are on the line.

Who's Right Here?

I'd really like for this incident to have been one where I could say "and that's why making extremely public pronouncements about being 'mission focused' are dumb", however I don't think there's really a good moral to take away from this. Now that I'm taking the time to go back through it, years later, there's some bigger context here that it's kind of hard to fully divorce this incident with. In fact, I think that same 'broader context' is definitely what we should use when evaluating the 'narrowized' claims of Mr. Armstrong -- the mission that he's asking his workers to leap aboard for him includes broader government surveillance.

If we step back for a second and look at the bigger picture of the particular environment that CashApp is embedded in, the broader audience that CashApp was looking to serve is actually it's largest and fastest growing userbase, Black Americans who live in the South[2]. Chik-Fil-A isn't really popular in San Francisco; it's much more prevalent and well-frequented an establishment in the South. For good reason too -- their chicken and fries are legimiately some of the best that you can get at a fast food chain. (Rumor has it it's because they use peanut oil as their fry oil and brine their chicken before they cook it.)

A thing that I've come to appreciate about Black Southerners, particularly in light of Biden's success in the Southern states during the Democratic primary earlier this year, is that they are, by and large, a very Christian and perhaps fairly conservative group of people. Which is to say that maybe, just maybe, the Christian politics of Chik-Fil-A aren't a huge problem for them, politically speaking. Intersectionality is idea that different political interest groups can come together over their shared understanding of what's preventing them from achieving their political goals, together, but I'm having trouble in seeing the intersection of the LGBTQ Square employees who are upset over the politics of a fundamentally Southern Baptist organization and what might, in fact, be a largely Southern Baptist population.

Which is to say, yeah, adding a Chik-Fil-A Boost probably was a good business decision.

Do you consider yourself a member of the LGBTQ community?

Armstrong is right that mission matters. CashApp's mission is "banking the unbanked", something that they're doing a damn good job at, in my opinion.[3] Banking services are an important mission.

Even if it doesn't change policy, I think it's fair for someone at Square to bring up the point that Chik-Fil-A puts money into some problematic organizations, just as it's probably fair for Coinbase employees to make noise about whatever it is their company is doing that they're not on board with. It's fair for any corporation member to point out how that organization is causing harm. Asking your employees to make a blanket stand on the 'Mission' is wrong. It's not fair to them to tie them to the mast of your ship and then tell them they'd better like where you're taking it, no complaining allowed, just because they didn't decide to bail that one time you suggested that they do so.

Ironically, CashApp's mission is pretty much the same as the one that Armstrong, idealistically, seems interested in aligning himself with. Except that when you contextualize the reason that Armstrong is making such a big hullabaloo about Mission and Devotion to the Cause, it's that his organization seems to be making money by selling deanonymization services to government entities.

Which is a pretty far cry, in my opinion, from offering a few dollars off a chicken sandwich.

[1] Vox article on how they stopped in 2019? [2] This might not be their fastest growing userbase anymore but look, here's a Google Trends of who's searching for CashApp vs Venmo [3] In fact, I'd argue that Jack Dorsey's adoption by prominent Black artists is in fact tacit acknowledgement of what a bang-up job they're doing at this mission.

#orgs #missions #dirt
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