5 Questions with… Eric Hippeau, Board Director at BuzzFeed

Eric Hippeau has been advising companies on the disruptions in media for four decades.

The way to the top of Corporate America is never clear-cut. In the case of Eric Hippeau, a 68-year-old board member of both BuzzFeed and Marriott International, the path was full of unlikely twists and turns. After graduating from the Sorbonne in the 1970s, the Frenchman moved to Brazil and spent the next 15 years largely making a living as the editor of an English-language expat newspaper in Rio de Janeiro. That’s not the most obvious route to America’s power centers.

But it was there that he founded Brazil’s first personal-computer magazine, just as mainframes were giving way to mini computers, and that ultimately led to becoming chairman and CEO of the publishing company Ziff Davis in New York in the early 1990s, before serving for nine years as a managing partner at Japan’s SoftBank Capital. Hippeau became the CEO of The Huffington Post in 2009, then sold that media innovator on to AOL just two years later. His venture capital firm Lerer Hippeau has, since 2011, invested early in the likes of Axios, BuzzFeed, and Chartbeat. We caught up with the constantly traveling director while he was out on the West Coast.

How did you get your first board seat?

My first was Yahoo. When we sold Ziff-Davis – publisher of PC magazine, among other titles – to SoftBank in 1995, the web was getting off the ground. Before the sale, we had struck a deal to invest $5 million in Yahoo. It was important to me to be affiliated with people who were driving this new web. SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son really liked Yahoo a lot and understood its merits, and a deal was then struck that SoftBank would own a third of Yahoo at the IPO price, way more than the $5 million I wanted to invest. So I joined Yahoo’s board right after its IPO—and stayed 15 years. It was a start-up and I literally did every job on Yahoo’s board, sitting on everything from the comp to search committees.

You’ve been on the boards of big publicly traded companies and on start-ups. What’s your tip for directors with big-company experience overseeing a start-up for the first time?

A director of a start-up has to keep an eye on compliance and all the rules and regulations to make sure it is a good public company. But you’re also spending more time than you expect on strategy, brainstorming, and acquisitions, much more than you do if you are part of a well-established company. You’re not part of the management, I don’t want to imply that, but you are more engaged with the future and what strategies the company should undertake.

My experience is that established public companies, because they have a well-oiled management team, tend not to engage their directors as much as younger companies do. That’s a pity. There is a wealth of experience and diversity that they are not tapping into.

That’s more than a pity. Isn’t it extremely dangerous, with so many disruptions underway, for an established company not to engage its directors in deeper thinking about its future?

I would agree. The question is whether companies really believe that’s the role of their board, as opposed to supervision of different compliance and rules, and of course evaluating the CEO.

What came after Yahoo?

Closely after Yahoo, SoftBank invested in an incredibly innovative company called GeoCities, which really was a pioneer social networker before broadband, organizing people by interests. By coincidence, Yahoo wound up buying GeoCities, so I was on both sides of that equation.

What do you do in cases like that? I assume you have to pick one board over the other?

Both companies have independent directors, so you basically recuse yourself. You’re not voting, for obvious reasons. But that doesn’t mean you’re not giving your opinion as to what should happen. In this case it was a no-brainer transaction. The company was just starting to monetize.