If the producers of the next “World’s Most Interesting Man in the World” commercial were looking for a Silicon Valley type, a prime candidate might be Bradley Tusk, a 42-year-old New Yorker who advises companies such as FanDuel and Tesla that are disrupting highly regulated industries.
Tusk made his bones in Silicon Valley through advising Uber, which paid him in equity for his services while still a Series A company, dramatically boosting Tusk’s net worth (he says he hasn’t sold any), and in the process, creating a model for his newest firm, Tusk Ventures.
Right now, Tusk Ventures, founded less than a year ago, has a dozen clients. Most of the 30 staffers who work at the company come out of politics at “high levels,” says Tusk, and each helps two clients navigate their respective regulatory waters, such as keeping them up to date with a curated email that they receive by 7 a.m. every morning.
His services come at a steep price: clients pay Tusk Ventures in equity and agree to sell him up to 10 percent of their company. (Tusk is raising a venture fund to ramp up his investing activities, though he declined to speak about any specifics at a dinner with reporters earlier this week. )
Startups make room for Tusk in their cap table because of his connections. Tusk was formerly Michael Bloomberg’s campaign manager, helping him to get elected to an unprecedented third term as the mayor of New York City after convincing the New York City Council to extend the role’s term limits. (Tusk also worked with Bloomberg to explore a bid for the current U.S. presidential campaign. Although he claims he found a way for Bloomberg to win, Bloomberg apparently thought the solution was too complicated.)
Another complementary business, seven-year- old Tusk Strategies, develops and runs political-style media campaigns for a host of Fortune 500 companies, including Google, Walmart, AT&T; media companies like AMC, NBC News, The Weather Channel; and institutions like Stanford.
Somewhat astoundingly, Tusk oversees three other outfits, too: a casino management company called Ivory Gaming Group (it owns one casino in Fresno); Kronos Archives, a custom archives business for companies and individuals; and a family foundation focused on reducing hunger in the U.S.
Did we mention he’s also trying to unseat current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in next year’s Democratic primary?
Oisin Hanrahan, CEO of Handy — an online platform for booking household services, and a client of Tusk Ventures — jokes that the more clients Tusk takes on, the “earlier my morning emails seem to arrive.”
Most of Tusk’s clients are sent to the outfit by venture firms that want to mitigate their risk. Revolution introduced Handy to Tusk. Another client, the ed tech startup Alt School, was introduced to Tusk by Andreessen Horowitz. FanDuel, in which Tusk Ventures owns a sizable stake, was sent to the company from the private equity firm KKR, FanDuel’s biggest shareholder. (Though it’s hard to measure Tusk Ventures’s impact on the decision, last month state lawmakers in New York moved to legalize fantasy sports games, months after being halted by the New York attorney general.)
Tusk Ventures won’t work with every startup it’s sent — and with Uber’s valuation rising to $60 billion, there’s no need.
Tusk tells of recent engagement that went south quickly saying that, “We had a company that, had you asked me on day one would I want to invest, I would have said, ‘Yeah, they’re amazing.’ But I got to work with them, got to know their regulatory problems, I saw the CEO up close, and I just didn’t like any of it.” Not only did Tusk Ventures not invest, it exercised a clause that allows the firm to back out of any deal within the first 60 days.
Says Tusk, “We’re there either because we believe in the company, in which case we’ll use our investment rights, or we’re gone.”
Startups that aren’t clients can also find themselves on the receiving end of criticism.
At that dinner this week, in front of half a dozen reporters, Tusk questioned whether Airbnb is worth the $30 billion that the home-sharing platform is reportedly seeking right now from new investors.
“They are raising now at a higher valuation, but if you were to say, ‘Here is what the New York and San Francisco markets are really worth in full legal compliance’ and then re-run the numbers . . . I don’t know that they are still that $30 billion company.”
The “enemy is important to take into context,” he continued. If the “boogeyman is casinos,” as with FanDuel, or “taxi medallion owners,” as with Uber, “they’re kind of sleazy guys.” Meanwhile, the affordable housing advocates that are fighting Airbnb are “kind of likable, right? So they’re just harder to beat.”
It’s a similar issue for Tesla, said Tusk, noting the many car dealerships around the country that are threatened by Tesla’s direct-to-consumer model.
“The [dealership owners] are these fixtures in their community, and they sponsor the Little League team, and they’re part of the parade every year. It’s really hard to overcome that.”