In September 2020 behaviour analytics company Hotjar fired Donald Trump and the GOP as clients, saying that taking the business contravened its company values. CEO David Darmanin and chief product and technology officer Mohannad Ali issued a statement by way of a letter to the Hotjar community, explaining it had updated its acceptable use policy to disallow sites that condone or support hate.
It was a development that appears to have been handled quickly and quietly, with a minimum of fuss and no backlash. We caught up with Mohannad to find out how it had played out, and what he might be able to tell the rest of us about tying your values to your products.
Mohannad says that when Hotjar was founded in 2014 its vision was to democratise behaviour analytics, and make them accessible to everyone – at the time they were only available to really big customers at very high price tags. Hotjar – now used in over 500,000 sites worldwide – is designed to be self-service and gets thousands of signups to its products every day. Mohannad adds: “This self-service has allowed us to serve hundreds of thousands of websites over the years but it means that we don’t have any way to monitor or police the people who are signing up to use the products.”
It was Nandini Jammi of Check My Ads who initially alerted the management team via Twitter that the Trump campaign was using the Hotjar service to optimise the user experience in its online merchandise store. “In the beginning, if I’m being completely honest and critical of ourselves, we fell into the same trap as most people – of trying to take more of a neutral stance. We also hadn’t taken the time to stop and think about how we might take a more organised approach to deal with such a situation.”
This initial response didn’t satisfy the Hotjar community, “and rightfully so”, says Mohannad. “We’re very privileged to have a community that can hold us accountable,” he adds, “and we realised we needed to take the time to understand what we really wanted to do in line with our values, instead of reacting with a pre-programmed response. I think that within the industry, there is this implicit expectation that the right decision in these kinds of situations is to sit on the sidelines.”
This initial response triggered a discussion among the company’s leaders about whether it was really in line with the company’s values to excuse themselves of any responsibility. The challenge they also had, says Mohannad, was that it wasn’t a clear-cut case, as it would have been if, for example, a white supremacist organisation had been using the service. “He’s a legitimate president running a legitimate campaign for re-election. But his campaign has blurred the lines between what is racist and what is not. A lot of the things he’s said, are, without question, racist by many people’s standards, and somehow during public discourse it’s become debatable whether they’re racist or not.”
The Hotjar leadership team then went through a conscious decision-making process before coming to the conclusion that they should issue a company statement and fire the Trump campaign. The entire process was conducted internally, says Mohannad, although company lawyers reviewed the statement and a few external people reviewed it from an editorial perspective.
Initially, they considered whether it was a good or bad business decision to part ways with the Trump campaign. “It’s probably the first thing that comes into anyone’s mind, but it was the first thing we threw out of the window. All credit to our CEO, he said ‘it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad business, the most important thing is whether we feel it’s bad’.”
It’s common in the workplace to separate the business from the people in it, and expect that people in the business should separate their personal beliefs from what they do. “The more we discussed this, the more ridiculous it seemed, because our personal convictions should really guide our business decisions. It’s your convictions that shape your company values in the first place so you can’t detach the two. We came to peace with the fact that this has to be a subjective exercise, based on personal conviction,” says Mohannad. He observes that while the choice of many businesses to stay on the sidelines and do nothing might seem like an objective move, it’s also subjective: “to choose to do nothing is a subjective stance”. The leadership team concluded that they had to be the personal arbiters of what is acceptable in order to make decisions about acceptable use.
The other challenge they had to consider was whether they should make decisions based solely on the content of the site, or also take into account the identity of the person behind the site or what the site stands for. “We made the decision that we would like to be able also to stop working with sites based on a second-order effect of who they represent,” Mohannad says. In the case of the Trump campaign shop they considered statements that might not be linguistically racist, but which they found to be contextually racist. “Statements ‘like build a wall and crime will fall’, this is something that is definitely contextually racist,” he adds.
Then the Hotjar leadership engaged with their teams. Mohannad observes that the decisions you make about values have a bigger impact on your team than they could ever have on customers: “Some of your customers might feel unhappy with a decision that you make, but it’s something that you can definitely survive. But if there’s a crack in the trust that the team has, it isn’t something you can easily survive. You keep your customer but you lose your team, so what’s the point?”
Can Your Team Survive?
There have been some instructive examples of this in action recently. For example Coinbase, whose CEO recently barred political activism at work has reportedly already lost 60 staff as a result, and Github has lost staff over its ICE contract. Mohannad adds: “One of the last decisions we made was – acceptable-use policy update or not – we would like to live by our values, and stay true to our team. And we wanted to stop working with the Trump campaign, because they were not a good values fit for us as a business.”
The Hotjar management acted quickly and decisively, it took about a month from Nandini’s initial alert for them to issue their statement and produce an updated acceptable use policy. But the consequences of their action will be with them for the long term. “The overwhelming majority of people have been incredibly supportive,” says Mohannad. “We don’t have any external investors, and I’m sure that gave us more freedom than it would others, but to be honest, having gone through this experience, I don’t think people have much to worry about, especially if they take care of their teams. Your team is the biggest problem.”
The experience has taught him a lot, he says. “Whenever your community, your customers, your team, or whoever calls you out on something you should engage. Don’t be passive. Then, I was always more concerned than I should have been. Every time I was worried about something being really bad, it ended up being a lot softer than I’d expected. Everyone is really proud to be working for Hotjar and we’re already seeing candidates say they love our values and would love to work for a company like ours.” Knowing that the best talent wants to work for your company means you can build a great team and a great product that gets you the best customers, he adds.
Whenever your community, your customers, your team, or whoever calls you out on something you should engage. Don’t be passive. Mohannad Ali, CTPO at Hotjar
Living up to Your Values
Does Mohannad have any thoughts on the other actions product leaders can take to live up to their values? He observes that truth can be something of a spectrum when companies talk about their values and suggests that companies solidify their core values and then work to stay true to them in every way possible. Hotjar’s core value of working with respect was foundational in its decision not to work with the Trump campaign, for example, and Mohannad points out that there are many other aspects of this core value that have a daily impact on the business – things like a healthy work-life balance. “We have a monthly wellbeing budget, to help people stay fit, or take care of their mental health, we invest in the wellbeing of the team.” He says clothing brand Patagonia, with its “1% for the planet” scheme, has been a great example of a business that lives by its values, and is a business whose values Hotjar wanted to emulate when the company was founded. Hotjar runs its own 1% scheme, last year donating 1% of revenues to causes that address the climate crisis.
This commitment to staying true to core values is even reflected in Hotjar’s performance reviews, “so we see people getting poor reviews because they’re working too hard”. Mohannad also describes Hotjar as a privacy-centric company, and that it tries to respect the privacy of its team and its customers. “But it’s also there in every product decision we make,” he says. “Other players in the analytics space go into certain areas we don’t touch because they’re not in line with our core values. Cross-site tracking is one example, the ability to track someone’s activity across multiple sites is not something we would ever do.”
You should also rely on your team, he says: “We crowdsourced our core values from our team. They told us this is who we are, and what we want to be. Lean on your team, get them involved, get them engaged, they will definitely help you, and they will hold you accountable as well.”
You should also look at how you scale your teams. Tech companies often grow very quickly, and, says Mohannad, “while we use a lot of the tools to scale the business, sometimes we leave out scaling the culture and values”. He adds that in a small company a lot of what you do – how your values are woven into your product, your processes and your decision making – is based on individuals, so it should be codified early on. “If you have a core value system, what do your product principles look like? And are they a good reflection of your values? You don’t want every decision point to be referred to the CPO or Head of Product. Narrative is one of the strongest tools you have in a team. If your values are part of your conversations on a day to day basis, something that you talk about, something you see in your performance reviews, if it’s something you look for in interviews and so on, it becomes second nature.”
Mohannad sums up: “We’re not a multi-billion dollar publicly traded business and we didn’t know what to expect. There are no precedents for this in the tech industry, no tech business has ever stopped working with the GOP or an incumbent president. Our gut feeling told us everything was going to be fine, but you never know. Making the decision was stressful, but our team has been re-energised by the process, and everyone is really happy to be working here. They care about the company and it shows in their work.”