Shades of Steve

Today it was announced that Rich Barton, one of the original founders of Zillow, is returning to run the company after the previous CEO, Spencer Rascoff, stepped down after having ran it for the last 9 years.

Bloomberg ran an article on this and here are some key parts:

Chief Executive Officer Spencer Rascoff is handing the reins to Executive Chairman Rich Barton, 51, who co-founded the company in 2005. Zillow, whose shares are down 46 percent since June, announced the move along with a quarterly earnings report that shows short-term results below analysts’ expectations. Shares rose 8 percent in post-market trading after earlier declining as much as 9 percent following the announcement.

Changing the company’s leadership “so that my voice is out at front during the period of extreme evangelism seemed like the right thing,” Barton, who was also a founder of travel site Expedia Group Inc., said in an interview. “I’m hoping our investors think it’s the right thing. I know many of our investors, they’ve known me from the beginning, they’ve invested with me with Expedia and other companies as well. They’re used to me pointing at the moon and saying, ‘I want to go step on that thing.’”

This is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons:

  1. Zillow has been fundamentally changing their business model. More details of this in this excellent analysis by Ben Thompson of Stratechery.
  2. There’s significant push back on the changes Zillow has made in the last year from institutional investors through the stock price and maybe even internal company culture.

I can’t help but make the connection to Steve Job’s return to Apple in 1997.

Given Apple and Jobs went on to create the iPhone, the biggest technological product the world has ever seen and thereby changing the course of technological progress, the comparison might not be fair but the impact of housing prices on America is very much real and does have huge costs to the economy. It represents a big opportunity for Zillow in pulling this off and makes sense they are looking to Rich Barton.

When Steve Jobs returned, he was possibly the only person that could stand on stage with Bill Gates looming in the background at that 1997 Macworld Expo announcing the infamous deal with Microsoft to bring back Apple from the brink.

Few people other than founders have the ability to instill confidence in their companies and change how things work. Zillow must be thinking about this.

The most obvious good news is Zillow didn’t look to a villain like another company that has a presence in the Seattle area did.