This is just not Andrew Mason’s year. The man who led Groupon while it was one of the fastest growing companies in history has watched his stock lose seven-eighths of its value. Now, according to AllThingsD, the board is thinking of bringing in a more experienced hand to manage Groupon – an Eric Schmidt type of leader. With Mason’s blessing, of course. In other words, Mason is going to get Schmidt-ed on.
Yesterday, Kara Swisher quoted unnamed sources that sounded passive-aggressive as they praised Mason while plotting to Bigfoot him out of the CEO’s desk. A rift has apparently emerged between Mason and two co-founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, and leaking this news is sure to put more pressure on Mason to step aside. With his blessing, of course. “The question is not whether Andrew is a good guy, but whether Groupon needs an Eric Schmidt,” one source was quoted as saying.
Eric Schmidt served as Google’s CEO during 10 years of strong growth. But Groupon, or any company looking to Schmidt and Google as a model, will soon see the analogy doesn’t necessarily hold up. First of all, there aren’t many people in tech like Eric Schmidt. He may have his prickly side and be given to Biden-like gaffes, but his mix of intelligence and foresight, and his experience at key companies like Sun and Novell, is a balancing act hard to come by.
Second, although they were loathe to give up control of their company, it was Larry Page and Sergey Brin who went out looking for Schmidt. At 45, his age didn’t seem to be as much of a factor than his prior attendance at Burning Man. Finally, Schmidt ran Google as part of a triumvirate, another tricky balancing act that somehow worked. From the looks of things, Groupon isn’t replicating Google’s model of bringing in an outside CEO at all. It’s just another board brushing the CEO aside. With Mason’s blessing, of course.
The report that Groupon’s board was considering sidelining Mason emerged the same day Reuters ran an in-depth story looking at discrimination against people over 40 in Silicon Valley. But age bias can cut both ways. When people in their 20s found a company that grows into a success, they are lionized as future business leaders. When the company goes public and hits the inevitable stock slump, suddenly their youth and relative inexperience is to blame.
Groupon may be experiencing a case of Founder’s Syndrome, in which the person who conceived a company and nurtured it into a success isn’t the best person to manage the company through a more mature phase. An unfortunate corollary that also seems to apply here is the Greybeard Syndrome – the often misguided idea that a seasoned CEO is the best one to take the reins when a founder-CEO leads an innovative company into choppy waters.
The classic instance of the Greybeard Syndrome is John Scully, lured to Apple in his mid-40s by Steve Jobs before the two clashed on strategy. During the dot com years, so-called grown-up executives from outside the Internet industry were often brought in to mediocre effect. In 2001, Terry Semel joined Yahoo at age 58 after a successful career at Warner Bros. Today, Semel is best remembered as the guy who didn’t buy Google and later failed to buy Facebook. Schmidt was another grown up brought in to usher Google into the public markets, and is the rare instance where the grown-up CEO didn’t hobble growth.
Mason isn’t the only young CEO being chided for his inexperience. It took Time magazine only 18 months to go from hailing Mark Zuckerberg as Person of the Year to a CEO whose time may have passed. That’s a brief shelf life even for the Internet sector. In the wake of Facebook’s IPO, “experts” have called for his hoodie (some even blamed the hoodie itself). But Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have been quick to make changes that are winning back investor interest and Wall Street’s praise.
Mason is no Zuckerberg, but pushing him aside could mark a return to the greybeard fallacy, especially as many recent Internet IPO’s have faltered. But it’s unlikely to work better now than it did a decade ago. As VC Ben Horowitz pointed out on a blog post a few weeks before Facebook’s IPO fiasco dashed the image of the founder-CEO, a look at the history of great tech companies shows “founders ran an overwhelming majority of them for a very long time.”
Should Mason not play well with a new CEO, his options aren’t so terrible. According to the terms of his employment contract, he could receive a handsome severance package if pushed out. And as I wrote before Groupon’s IPO it was clear from the letter Mason slipped into the company’s prospectus that selling group coupons to online tightwads wasn’t his life’s dream. Groupon, Mason noted, started out as “The Point,” a kind of Kickstarter for social causes that “lets anyone organize a campaign asking others to give money or take action as a group.” But he was bugged to find a more profitable business model by Lefkofsky, who is now reportedly bugging him to step aside.
It may be no coincidence that Groupon’s board is making noise about replacing Mason a few weeks after Tiger Global Management, a $5 billion hedge fund seeded by legendary investors Julian Robertson, bought a 9.9 percent stake in the company. Soros Fund Management and Tudor Investments have also bought Groupon shares. And months ago, Groupon brought on two old-school finance types to its board: an ex-CFO of American Express and a former vice chairman at accounting firm Deloitte.
So Groupon is growing up, and as it does there may not be much room for Andew Mason to run things. Whether a different, more grown-up CEO would run Groupon better remains to be seen. But I doubt it. Groupon thrived by pioneering a consumer fad – the online deal of the day. That fad has passed as all fads must. As Groupon looks for new areas of growth, it finds itself competing against Amazon and pushing into low-margin areas of ecommerce. Groupon’s stock may be rebounding, but its broader problems haven’t gone away.
And if investors think that parachuting in seasoned executives into Internet companies is a winning formula for other troubled startups, they’d do well to think again. In the tech world, grown-ups as leaders aren’t necessarily better than home-grown ones.