At the expense of its partners’ neutrality, Expensify boosts Biden
This past Friday, October 23, Expensify CEO David Barrett sent an email to 10 million users with the subject line: “Protect democracy, vote for Biden.”
In a 1,300-word email, Barrett argues forcefully that Trump is attempting to dismantle the (small “d”) democratic institutions in this country. Here’s an excerpt, to give you a taste:
"Expensify depends on a functioning society and economy; not many expense reports get filed during a civil war. As CEO of this business, it’s my job to plot a course through any storm — and all evidence suggests that another four (or as Trump has hinted — eight, or more?) years of Trump leadership will damage our democracy to such an extent, I’m obligated on behalf of shareholders to take any action I can to avoid it. I am confident our democracy (and Expensify) can survive a Biden presidency. I can’t say the same about Trump."
Barrett goes on to say that anything less than a vote for Biden — including a vote for Trump, or supporting a third-party candidate, or simply not voting at all — means that you are “comfortable standing aside and allowing democracy to be methodically dismantled, in plain sight.”
That's a rather extreme argument. Do we really believe that if Donald Trump gets re-elected, democracy as we know it will end?
But I’m not here to debate the content of Barrett’s message. I’m more concerned about what’s going on in his mind.
I’ve met David Barrett, and he seems like a nice guy. He’s definitely a smart guy. He anticipated the consumerization of enterprise software and built a great expense reporting app that’s become a resounding success. But he can also be a bit of a button-pusher. And even though it’s his First Amendment right, he probably shouldn’t have hit “Send” on this one.
That’s because it came with significant hidden costs. Not for Expensify itself, but for Expensify’s clients and partners. While Barrett and his team were clearly prepared for any fallout, the people who use their software were not. Accountants, bookkeepers and small-business owners who use the software were completely caught off guard.
Consider the accountants and bookkeepers who are members of the ExpensifyApproved! Partner Program. These accounting professionals recommend and resell Expensify to their clients. Many of them have published videos promoting Expensify. They uploaded those clips to YouTube months or years ago. Now, all of a sudden, they’re deluged with harassment in the comments. And now many of their clients are clamoring to ditch Expensify for a new software solution — one that will cost time and money to implement.
If you're a small-business owner, you might not even know who David Barrett is. You probably didn't see the email, but your employees did, and some of them are upset. Now you have to deal with the fallout.
Maybe you’re an accountant or office manager who works at that business. If you’re the one who chose Expensify, now suddenly you might look bad to your colleagues who are unhappy with the content of Barrett’s unsolicited opinion.
And let’s not forget Expensify’s large partners, including the American Institute of CPAs and its subsidiary CPA.com, organizations that are now forced to deal with the ripple effects of Barrett’s exhortation, which quickly morphed into a huge dustup on social media.
Regardless of how you are connected to this app, there’s a chance that whatever you planned to do that day, you had to deal with this instead. Talk about downstream impacts and unintended consequences.
In interviews, Barrett says the email was debated internally on Slack for about a week among its entire workforce (about 140 employees). But the final decision came down to a vote from the 20-person leadership team. Two-thirds were in favor of sending the email.
But did they ask their partners? No.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s understandable why the Expensify leadership is worked up about this election. Many businesses have been hurting this year, but for Expensify, the pandemic is especially devastating. Corporate travel is virtually nonexistent, and so are expense reports. Barrett sees a Biden presidency as the best path to normalcy and his company’s survival.
But it's one thing to stake a claim as a private individual, another to endorse a candidate on behalf of your company, and another to say it in such an aggressive way as an official company communication. That’s what Barrett did, and why it’s so divisive.
Expensify is not an island. What David Barrett says — what the company says — has consequences for those affiliated with Expensify. Therein lies the problem with this email, at least as far as accountants should be concerned.
Accountants and especially CPAs have a reputation for being independent, objective and skeptical. These traits are central to our professional ethics. Neutrality is what creates value for the people who hire us. We work to help them achieve their goals — not our own.
If you’re a software developer and you partner with accountants, it’s important you understand this. Don’t push your own agenda at the expense of our integrity.
Having read all this, perhaps you still think that pressing "Send" on that email was worth it. If that’s true, imagine a world in which all the companies that make the software you use started taking stands like this. Do you really want to live in a world of “red” apps and “blue” apps, in which politics becomes a deciding factor in the technology we use?
I sure don’t. It was hard enough living through the years of that awful Mac vs. PC debate!