Owen Van Natta, Facebook's former COO, is officially taking over MySpace, News Corp.'s social network. With its user numbers stagnant, MySpace desperately needs a restart. Is Van Natta the guy to do it?
He certainly has the motivation: revenge — and the success which is its best form.
Van Natta joined Facebook when the startup was an also-ran site, limited to college kids and run by college dropouts, and steered it through a period of hypergrowth. He was a key negotiator behind an advertising deal with Microsoft which provided Facebook with a solid financial footing as its user numbers blew up. His payback? Founder Mark Zuckerberg demoted him gracelessly in August 2007, and left in February 2008 — the first of many high-profile departures by executives who had fallings-out with Zuckerberg.
He then spent months hanging out and vacationing before joining a Palo Alto music startup he'd invested in, Project Playlist, as its CEO. Playlist's music widget for social networks had been banned by both Facebook and MySpace as it feuded with the major labels, and while he didn't manage to get it reinstated on either site, Van Natta did strike a deal with EMI.
Deals are what Van Natta built his reputation on. He spent seven years at Amazon.com, ultimately becoming its vice president of worldwide business development. Before that, his LinkedIn profile offers few details. There's a six-year gap between his 1992 graduation from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a BA in English and American literature and his 1998 arrival at Amazon.
Here's what we've reconstructed of his background: CNET editor Charlie Cooper recalls him being a sales intern at Computer Shopper in the early '90s. By 1996, he was working at Softbank Expos, a conference organizer. He then joined Zip2, a now-forgotten dotcom started by Elon Musk, now the CEO of Tesla Motors, and became its senior director of network advertising. In 1998, he joined PlanetAll, a nascent social network, as its VP of sales, shortly before it was acquired by Amazon.com.
What this alleged Internet studmuffin's resume tells us is that he's a smart opportunist. Is that what MySpace needs? It has certainly missed enough opportunities along the way. The other skill Van Natta's noted for is the ability, rare among slick suit-wearing dealmakers, to be tolerated by engineers. MySpace has never been a technology-driven company, and that flaw finally caught up with it over the past couple of years.
If Van Natta plays to his past reputation and just cuts some flashy deals, he'll solidify his reputation as a dilettante dealmaker, and doom his career. If he woos the right talent to MySpace and turns the place around, he'll prove he deserves to be a CEO — and rub his success in the face of a certain snotnosed punk in Palo Alto.