Photo: Michael Seto for Business Insider
On Tuesday, three news stories appeared that reported essentially the same thing:
Board members at Groupon were discussing firing the company’s CEO, Andrew Mason.
These news stories did not cite each other. Rather, they cited “sources” close to the situation. (Kara Swisher at AllThingsD broke the story.* Then Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal followed. Kara Swisher is a great reporter and may have flushed out the information, but sources confirmed it—not just to her but to the WSJ and Bloomberg*).
Often, when separate news stories contain essentially the same information and don’t cite each other, it means that a person or company wants the information out there.
In the case of the Groupon, it was not immediately obvious who stood to gain from the Andrew Mason information.
It didn’t help Andrew Mason, certainly.
And it didn’t help the company, whose leadership was suddenly thrown into limbo.
And it didn’t help the board as a whole, which looked like it was stabbing its CEO in the back.
It seemed unlikely that high-quality publications like AllThingsD, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal would run with secondhand information. So it seemed the information had come directly from (or at the behest of) one or more of the board members who are discussing firing Mason.
Judging from the Wall Street Journal’s story, which cited “fractures” and “clashes” between Andrew Mason and board members Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, it’s not hard to guess who those board members might be.
In any event, leaking information like that was a cutthroat thing to do.
And it put Andrew Mason in an incredibly awkward position.
For one thing, it forced him to address in public the question of whether the board might fire him, which he did at our conference Wednesday in New York. Mason had a good answer for that question: With the stock getting clobbered, of course the board was discussing whether he is the right guy for the job. But boards generally have those discussions in private, not in newspapers.
Importantly, if everyone on the board wanted to fire Mason, there would have been no need to leak the story. The board could just have canned Mason at the upcoming meeting and announced the news when it was a fait accompli. So it seems likely that a board member or two want to oust Mason and other board members don’t—and that the ones who do want to oust him blindsided him.
(That was the impression I got in our interview Wednesday, by the way—that Mason had been blindsided. He was articulate and composed, but he also seemed almost resigned to the fact that he was going to get canned).
It will be interesting to one day get the full story.
It will also be interesting to see how the situation plays out.
And inasmuch as someone on the Groupon board apparently wants us to have a public discussion about whether Andrew Mason should be canned, let’s go ahead and have one.
The fire-Mason case is clear:
- Groupon’s stock has had an abysmal year since its IPO a year ago.
- Groupon’s international business is imploding.
- The growth of Groupon’s core daily deal business has slowed to a crawl, and the product still clearly needs tuning (there are too many anecdotal stories of merchants not liking the product)
- There has been some senior management turnover
- A big part of the problem at the company is external perception (which starts at the top)
- Andrew Mason has only a few years of business experience and is now responsible for turning around and managing a massive global corporation, winning over Wall Street and the media, instilling passion and confidence in tens of thousands of rattled customers and employees
The give-Mason-more-time case, however, is also compelling:
- Groupon has likely grown faster than any company in history—from zero to $2.5 billion in revenue, 12,000 employees, and profitability in less than four years
- Groupon is still growing
- Groupon is making money
- Groupon has crushed almost all of its competitors
- Groupon has successfully launched a new business—merchandise—that is already doing more than $1.5 billion of annualized revenue
- Groupon’s North American business is still doing well—it’s the acquired companies in Europe that are the problem
- Mason has a lot left to learn, but he is learning quickly
- All companies go through rough periods.
What decision will the board make? What’s the right decision?
That’s a tough one.
In my opinion, it depends a lot on Andrew Mason.
Andrew Mason has led Groupon this far (and very few observers appreciate how spectacularly hard that has been to do). If Andrew Mason wants to fight to keep his job, commits to learning more about how to run a multi-national corporation and communicate better with Wall Street and the media, and remains excited and passionate about his job, then he should be given more time. Not an indefinite amount of time, but more time.
If, on the other hand, Andrew Mason has learned that managing a huge global corporation, dealing with the media and investors, and continuing to build and manage a top-notch senior executive team is just not as much fun or as rewarding as leading Groupon in the early years, then he should step aside (or get canned).
This, by the way, is not a new situation for a founder-CEO to find himself in.
The skills and leadership ability required to grow a startup are different than those required to turn around and manage a vast global corporation. And many talented entrepreneurs and executives decide that they prefer one to the other.
I have huge respect for Andrew Mason for doing the interview. Most CEOs would have cancelled the conference appearance. I also have huge respect for what Mason and his team have accomplished at Groupon over the past three years.
If Mason wants some more time to prove himself and fix Groupon, the board should give him more time.
If he doesn’t, I hope he resigns quickly, helps hire a great new CEO, and then eventually gets more credit for building the company than he has to date.
The reason that leak was so ruthless, though, is that it will be hard to recover from.
Groupon’s CEO has been placed in limbo.
At a board meeting scheduled for Thursday, the board will have to do and then say something. And even if the board decides to give Mason more time, everyone at the company (and in the world) will know that that’s what they’re doing. And they will also know that Mason’s grace period will be short. That will hurt Mason’s authority, both internally and externally, which will make it even more difficult for him to succeed.
(Yes, the board could put out a statement saying that it has “complete confidence” in Mason or something, but under the circumstance, this would be laughable.)
To resolve the situation in Mason’s favour would require the resignation of the board members who want him gone. But even this wouldn’t fix it. Everyone would know why these board members were quitting—because they had lost confidence in the CEO—and that wouldn’t help Mason’s authority, either.
Even if Andrew Mason wants to fight for his job, in other words, it will be a tough fight to win.
Whoever stabbed him in the back knew what they were doing.
* To be clear: I’m not suggesting that this story was actively “placed” with Kara Swisher. Swisher is an aggressive and experienced reporter, she is deeply sourced at Groupon, and this was a great scoop. Andrew Mason was originally scheduled to appear at our conference on Tuesday. On Monday evening, Groupon canceled his Tuesday appearance and did not immediately confirm a Wednesday appearance. Normally, late cancellations like this mean something. Swisher likely assumed that this one meant that Mason was in trouble and called Groupon sources to confirm that. The point I am making is that at least two of Swisher’s Groupon sources elected to say that the Groupon board was “seriously discussing” firing Andrew Mason. The sources did not have to say that. And they then did not have to say the same thing to Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. The sources could have said nothing. Given the sophistication of some of the people involved, I believe the sources knew full well what would happen if they confirmed Swisher’s perfectly reasonable questions. They don’t call it “boardroom intrigue” for nothing…