What’s a young CEO to do amid rumors that he may soon be relieved of his duties? Hunker down and lobby privately for an extended tenure? Or sit for a public interview on the subject of his imminent demise?
That was the question from Groupon CEO Andrew Mason faced this week, as gossip swirled that he would cancel a planned experience at Business Insider’s Ignition conference following AllThingsD’s dish suggesting management changes could be in the offing at the Chicago-based company.
In the end, Mr. Mason decided to attend as scheduled. The first question he faced from Henry Blodget: “Is the board going to fire you tomorrow?”
“Here’s a news flash, our stock is down 80 percent,” Mr. Mason answered. “It would be weird if the board wasn’t asking if I was the right guy to do the job.”
Maybe going forward with the interview was a savvy decision. If, as The Wall Street Journal reported last night, discussions about replacing Mr. Mason centered on the company’s need to do a better job communicating its successes, the chatter ahead of the conference only ensured that journalists far and wide would be hanging on his every word.
To that end, Mr. Mason presented as self-assured, acknowledging the company’s struggles—”When you’re creating a new category, there’s going to be bumps along the road” and taking in stride Mr. Blodget’s repeated prodding—”if I ever didn’t think I was the right person for the job, I’d be the first person to fire myself.”
It wasn’t until Mr. Blodget invoked his own reputational rise-and-fall to ask how Mr. Mason handled the criticism—”Does it suck?”—that the Groupon founder resorted to sarcasm: “No it’s awesome Henry, it’s the greatest thing of the world.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Mason took the moment in the spotlight as the opportunity to tout Groupon’s strong point, including 38 percent year-over-year growth in gross billings in North America, high volume of mobile transactions and never-ending search—including new forays into travel and shipping goods directly to people’s houses—for ways to make money. Mr. Mason admitted that Groupon’s international business was lagging–the result of a rapid expansion, but said it was all part of the long-term plan.
“There’s so much exciting stuff happening in the company, that tends to be what we’re focused on,” he said. “We’ve built up a resiliency to the external noise, because we know what’s in the best interest of our shareholders is not optimizing for three months from now, but optimizing for three years from now.”
Be that as it may, there’s a reason for the chatter about who will lead Groupon in the future. The stock, as Mr. Mason noted, has fallen precipitously since the company’s Novemeber 2011 IPO, and third-quarter earnings didn’t exactly make investors smile. Where Mr. Mason sees Groupon’s diversity of offerings as a strength, others might see a lack of focus. Last month brought news that the Securities and Exchange Commission is sniffing around the company again. The breakneck pace of Groupon’s growth—zero to 12,000 employees in four years—had made it a very different company than the quirky deals service Mr. Mason founded.
Mr. Mason didn’t actually say whether he expected the board to fire him. But he did take a subtle dig at the notion that the company needs an adult—someone such as Google’s Eric Schmidt—to help the rapidly growing startup mature.
“We’ve had plenty of professionals that we’ve brought into Groupon in various roles,” he said. “And we’ve seen the speed and at times, the chaos of Groupon, crush them as seasoned professionals.”
On the other hand, if seasoned pros can’t handle the chaos of Groupon, what makes Mr. Mason think that he can?