What the Liberty fight reveals: Diller's no entrepreneur

Having borrowed his empire, Barry Diller is now living on borrowed time. Former cable baron John Malone's Liberty Media is trying to break the sophisticated financial arrangements which give Diller control over IAC, his online conglomerate. Diller calls the effort "insane," "hogwash." But here's the reality: Diller owns 28 percent of the company, while Liberty owns 24 percent, according to the company's most recent proxy statement. Liberty, however, controls nearly 60 percent of the company's voting stock. Diller, in turn, has the right to vote Liberty's shares. This complicated entanglement is what Liberty and Diller are fighting about. Far more interesting than the legalisms is what it shows about Diller — and why Diller's so unhappy about it.

A decade and a half ago, Diller was cast out of Hollywood's Paramount studio with nothing more than a PowerBook and a Gulfstream. He set out to become an entrepreneur, running his own show and building something new. Instead, he became a trader of assets. His first big trade: obtaining a hand-me-down home-shopping network, HSN, which Malone helped him buy. There his troubles began.

Since then, Diller's career has been of buying low and selling high: Ticketmaster, CitySearch, Match.com, Expedia, Ask.com, and the like. (He bought and sold Ticketmaster, in some form, an astounding seven times.) Can you name single hit that has emerged from Diller's own mind? Exactly. With Diller steering the wheel, IAC-borne startups like Gifts.com, Zwinky, 23/6, and the like have gone nowhere.

And yet Diller steadfastly fancies himself an entrepreneur, not a trader. Profiles constantly talk about how he zooms in on particular businesses, eager to offer the real managers running his businesses advice, desperate to somehow leave a mark on the things he bought with other people's money, as if they somehow belonged to him.