Jason Del Rey

Recent Posts by Jason Del Rey

Why Amazon Prime’s Top Exec Bolted for a New Job at Groupon

Over the last three years, even as it has struggled to replicate its early popularity, Groupon has attracted several execs who had successful runs at Internet retail giant Amazon.

Recently, the deals company added another Amazonian to its team: Robbie Schwietzer, a 10-year veteran there who had been running Amazon Prime, its very successful free two-day shipping membership business.

At Groupon, Schwietzer will be SVP of operations, reporting to COO Kal Raman, another former Amazon exec.

I spoke to Schwietzer last week to find out why he would leave a high-profile role within Amazon to work at Groupon, which has discovered some newfound stability under new CEO Eric Lefkofsky, but which is still transitioning away from a reliance on daily deals.

Here’s a lightly edited version of our chat:

Jason Del Rey: You’ve been at Amazon for 10 years, and the last five in a senior role at one of the most exciting business divisions: Prime. Groupon, on the other hand, is still in the process of executing on a new vision for the company. Why take this job?

Robbie Schwietzer: It wasn’t anything about Amazon. It wasn’t like I was running away. Amazon is a fantastic place to work. The leadership — not just [CEO Jeff Bezos], but much of the leadership team — is a visionary team. I was quite happy at Amazon, and felt like I was having a good, successful career there. Prime was going really well, and things were running on all cylinders.

And yet a recruiter contacted me about Groupon, and my first reply was that I was happy where I was, but thanks.

But I happen to know many guys on the exec team. Jason Child (Groupon’s CFO), was my hiring manager. (Groupon’s SVP of product management) Jeff Holden was one of the first VPs I supported. I never worked for Kal, but we crossed paths several times. I knew a bunch of these guys, and respected them and trusted them, so I ended up saying, “Yeah, I’ll come in and talk.”

When I went in and met with them and the guys I didn’t know — I met with Eric and some others on the team — I was just super impressed, and not just with the leadership team, but with the long-term vision. I kind of went in with the outsider perspective of, “Wow, there’s been a rough couple of years in the press,” but, no offense, how much of what the press is spinning is a story that sells well?

What I found, for instance, is that there’s huge merchant satisfaction, and the merchants in general are extremely happy with how we help their businesses. And that isn’t a story that gets played in the press often, or at all.

When I saw the leadership team and the vision for where they are taking the company, when I saw the data on the merchant satisfaction, when I saw the growth and scale and where this could be and my opportunity to be a part of it, it was really hard to say no. They’re building a new category, and it goes behind just 50 percent off. If you go back decades to the airline industry and the huge shift toward yield management, who’s helping local merchants with that today? No one, really.

How much did money play a part in your decision?

Well, I’m not working for free so … but was it the primary factor? No. It wasn’t the only reason, nor the primary reason. Especially with something this young, that has the mixed history Groupon has, you need to do a gut check and really believe in the vision for what’s being built, and really believe in the leadership team, and really believe that in the role for me I could add real value to the organization, and grow my skill set and span of control. Then, after that, I considered could it be financially rewarding.

You were already running the Prime business at Amazon. Did you have the opportunity to be promoted into a more senior role at Amazon?

It’s hard to know. There’s what I perceived, and what reality might have been. Obviously, I’m not privy to the organizational discussion that happens about myself.

I like to think that I was doing well. I moved through the ranks at Amazon relatively quickly, and was in charge of the Prime program for five and a half years. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn, but I was having a good, strong career there.

Where is there to go from where I was? There’s the S team (an Amazon leadership team), but that’s a pretty small group relative to the overall size of the organization. And there’s not a lot of turnover in that group, as you might expect.

So, would I at some point ever be on the S team? I have no idea. No idea. But was there a role in between being VP of Prime and making that team? I’m sure there are some other VP roles but, from an organizational ladder perspective, no, I’m not aware of anything in between.

How hard was it to get over the stigma that Groupon and the deals space still have?

When I came in here, that was definitely one of my reservations. I said: “Convince me.”

They shared the research and survey data around merchant satisfaction that’s conducted by an independent agency. And on both the merchant and consumer side, the satisfaction scores were extremely high — in some cases, as high as Amazon. That’s what ultimately got me convinced.

Since then, in the last three and a half weeks, I’ve gone on two or three ride-alongs with sales reps just to see what the people on the ground are doing day to day, and what that’s like. They were super-positive experiences.

Does anything from the Prime business translate directly into your new role at Groupon?

I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s immediately why Groupon wanted me, or why I came over. It’s not like I’m going to be running any loyalty program or rewards program. I’m sure, at some point, is there a benefit to such a thing? Yes. But it was really more of a fit in terms of leadership values and my approach to building new businesses.

So, what exactly is your day-to-day role?

I’m the SVP for operations, and report to Kal. Generally, I’m there to help him and our various businesses on things like new growth initiatives, operational efficiencies. It will span everything from customer service — I’ll be spending a fair amount of time on customer service, and how to improve the focus on the customer and doing what’s right for them — to merchant services, as well, to helping the salesforce be more productive.

It’s pretty broad, and then you throw in that Groupon is in 48 countries — there’s a lot of opportunity just around driving a similar process and analytical approach across all the different countries.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald