Former Facebook Exec Van Natta Set to Take Over at MySpace, as Founder DeWolfe Prepares to Step Down
Finally, Owen Van Natta is about to win out over a founder.
The former Facebook COO (pictured here) is poised to become the CEO of MySpace, replacing co-founder and current CEO Chris DeWolfe.
DeWolfe will likely get a title as a special adviser to MySpace in a deal that is still coming together.
Settling all the specifics could take at least a day and there is always the possibility that this changing-of-the-guard deal could fall apart. But multiple sources close to the situation said it is more just a matter of ironing out the details.
Thus, the die seems cast for Van Natta to take over the thorny job of rehauling MySpace, which is owned by News Corp. (NWS).
(News Corp. also owns Dow Jones, which owns this Web site).
In a post this morning, MediaMemo was the first to name Van Natta as the only candidate in the running to take over as leader of MySpace.
It’s familiar territory for him.
Van Natta never got the big job at Facebook, which is under the firm control of founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
But Van Natta–who got to Facebook in its early days after stints at various companies, including Amazon (AMZN)–was a key early player in making the social-networking site into the juggernaut it is today.
He played a large role in its advertising and investment deals with Microsoft (MSFT), for example, as well as in hiring many of its current execs.
But, like many at Facebook, Van Natta left Facebook in early 2008 under tense circumstances, although he now is on good terms with Zuckerberg and others at Facebook.
Maybe not any longer.
In a delicious digital irony, he will be taking on Facebook head on, as MySpace–once the momentum player in the space–tries to regain its step against Facebook.
Van Natta is currently CEO of music start-up Project Playlist and it is not yet clear what will happen there. When he was previously talking to MySpace about running its music site, there was speculation that it might buy the start-up.
Today’s developments have happened quickly and without a lot of advance planning.
The talks to complete this deal are being led by new digital boss Jon Miller (pictured here), who came to News Corp. last month.
News Corp. officials declined to comment on the developing situation.
But sources said that Miller hadn’t been planning on getting rid of DeWolfe in the near future, and until yesterday, he was still evaluating his options.
News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch had once treated DeWolfe as a favorite and gave him significant autonomy at MySpace.
But Murdoch, who brought Miller on, has been leaning toward a change in leadership as MySpace’s traffic has stagnated and its buzz and momentum have moved to Facebook.
Under DeWolfe, many have felt it has dropped the ball on innovation and in making key improvements to its technology and features.
Worst of all, MySpace’s lucrative $900 million search advertising deal with Google (GOOG) is also coming to an end, a deal that essentially paid for the News Corp. acquisition.
Recently, several key execs have left too, including COO Amit Kapur.
In general, the social-networking giant has had an air of decline about it, despite its still-enormous size.
Nonetheless, Murdoch had left the decision about the site’s leadership to Miller, his new hire, sources said.
Miller had been talking to many and was indeed leaning toward putting a new CEO in place, but not in this fashion. He had hoped to work out the transition with DeWolfe, said several sources.
Miller himself had been badly treated, when Time Warner (TWX) dumped him as CEO of AOL several years ago. Ironically, the media giant just ousted the execs who ousted Miller.
But Miller’s options narrowed last night, once TechCrunch ran a story claiming that News Corp. had hired a headhunting firm to “scour for possible replacements” for DeWolfe.
News Corp. hadn’t actually hired a headhunter at all, but the story spooked DeWolfe into calling Miller to ask what his plans were. That conversation led to today’s negotiations.
Van Natta is well known at News Corp. and was, at one point, the leading candidate to head up MySpace Music, which launched last fall, and the two sides held extensive conversations.
But Van Natta did not like the job’s org chart: Rather than a standalone company, MySpace Music is simply a unit of MySpace, reporting to DeWolfe.
MTV executive Courtney Holt eventually took the job.
Van Natta is intertwined with MySpace in other ways.
Project Playlist, the free music-streaming site he took over last fall, has seen traffic plummet after MySpace, along with Facebook, cut off the sites’ access to their users, a move prompted by lawsuits from several major music companies.
Van Natta has made some headway at extracting the company from its legal mess, which predated his hiring, and he has hammered out a settlement with EMI Music Group.
But Playlist is still being sued by other music labels.
And, even music sites that aren’t in legal trouble are struggling to keep their heads above water.
Thus, plenty of Silicon Valley watchers–including BoomTown, who calls Van Natta periodically to ask why he seemed to enjoyed the pain of running an online music business–have wondered why Van Natta landed at Playlist in the first place, and have speculated that he has been looking for a way out.
He has been on the short list for many big Web jobs at places like Microsoft and other Silicon Valley start-ups, but has not bitten until now.