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Executive Search in the Internet Sector

I’ve been headhunting within the internet space since the very beginning of my career in 2004, and more by luck than by judgment, my own sector specialism has matched that of one of the fastest growing segments over the last 15 years or so.

So what are the leadership trends in the internet space, and how could you think about it from a candidate perspective?

Understanding the sector

When we talk about the internet sector, the definition can be very broad – any product or service that uses the internet as a significant means of distribution. This could be a multi-channel retailer who partly sells products online or a pure-play online retailer. It could be an online gambling firm, news website, travel business or dating website.

It’s often helpful to break down the sector into subsegments in order to better understand it. One of the most fundamental divides in the internet space is between;

  • Companies that sell a product or service online. We could call these transactional businesses “e-commerce businesses” and they include marketplaces and perhaps most internet businesses today.
  • Companies that make money from advertising.

This divide is important because the customer lifetime value (CLV) of e-commerce businesses tends to be much, much higher than advertising funded business models. Indeed, outside of a few very successful ad-funded internet businesses (e.g. Google and Facebook), most companies relying on advertising revenues online have struggled. Online news sites simply cannot afford to spend much money acquiring new customers because their marginal value is not high enough. can spend $100 to acquire a customer spending $3000 on a holiday; The Guardian cannot.

As a headhunter in the space, you are most typically asked to work for e-commerce businesses, and this is typically where “most of the money is”.

Internet subsectors mature at different rates

The internet has meaningfully been around for 20 years now, and unsurprisingly different subsectors have matured at different rates.

Online gambling was the first sector to mature and grow quickly, with early innovators such as PartyGaming growing rapidly around the turn of the millennium.

Online retail has also been quick to move online, particularly in areas like online fashion that now has a number of big players around Europe such as ASOS, Zalando and Net-a-Porter. With big beasts like Amazon also in the space, new online retailers in 2019 need to find niches in newer spaces in order to compete. This is still possible with new and innovative businesses such as (pet food), Pact Coffee (coffee!) and Bloom and Wild (flowers) finding successful and differentiated areas in which to operate.

Online travel has also been maturing quickly, with giants like Expedia and, and a plethora of travel search engines and other intermediaries.

Marketplace businesses models are usually attractive to venture capital and private equity firms as (in theory) they shouldn’t require too much capital to scale.

By contrast, we are only just starting to see real innovation in areas like fintech and digital healthcare. Companies like Revolut, Monzo, and TransferWise in the fintech space, and companies like Babylon Health in digital healthcare are only just starting to become household names. Why is that?

Financial Services have traditionally been offered by banks – large, slow moving corporations that often have a lot of legacy technology and find it hard to innovate. This, combined with people naturally being conservative with their money online, means that we are only now starting to see big players emerging. Similarly, healthcare has traditionally been provided by the government which is rarely a source of fast-paced innovation.

Marketing, Technology and Product

As a headhunter in the internet space, the projects you are generally asked to complete most frequently are marketing, technology, and product flavoured roles. Why is that?

  • Marketing, particularly performance marketing, is absolutely key to e-commerce companies. Customer acquisition, retention and maximising customer lifetime value are essential to their success. Because customers are making purchasing decisions online, knowing how to acquire them online at the right price point is especially essential. Brand marketing is important too (particularly in some subsegments like fintech) but performance marketing, both in terms of acquisition and retention, is absolutely at the core of the sector.
  • Product Management is also essential. Most internet businesses don’t have intellectual property and significant barriers to entry in their sector. and Expedia sell the same hotel rooms. How do you differentiate? Through creating the right user experience in terms of the functionality of your site and its design. Being sharp in marketing and product management is often the difference between success and failure in the internet space.
  • All internet businesses rely on technology to succeed, and having a scalable, robust technology stack that is not monolithic and saddled with technical debt is essential. Many founder CTOs are brilliant technologists, but often have less interest or capability in organising and leading the technology team, needing a strong, operational VP Engineering to hire well, lead the team, and ensure that products are built on time and budget.

Agile Development

The concept of agile development is essential to how many internet businesses organise their product development today. Gone are the days of “strategists” coming up with new ideas but having no idea how to build them. Software engineers are no longer there just to write code; they are there to contribute towards product strategy as well.

Agile development is a “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” approach, and requires product managers to understand engineering processes, and encourages engineers to contribute to product strategy. Small, cross-functional teams (often including engineers, QA, product manager, UX designers) often work together around particular product areas. “We follow the Spotify model” is something you hear often when talking to investors and executives within high growth internet companies.

Bigger VS Smaller companies

There are sometimes important differences between what bigger and smaller internet businesses want from candidates, and also the nature of how they hire.

Smaller internet companies are often backed by venture capital or private equity firms. Accel Partners, Octopus Ventures and PE firms like Technology Crossover Ventures or KKR (amongst many others) extensively invest in internet companies. Many early stage internet businesses will be founder-led and often lack mature HR functions and recruitment processes. The PE or VC investor and CEO are often the key stakeholders in hiring processes and building strong relationships with them is key.

By contrast, bigger companies often have long hiring processes with many stages and stakeholders, and have a much more formal approach to recruitment. As a general rule, smaller sector specialist headhunting firms do the lions share of work with earlier stage internet companies, whereas the “SHREK” headhunting firms tend to work more with bigger companies.

Smaller internet companies can often innovate quicker than larger ones due to less hierarchy and lower technical debt; roles in this context are often more purely about innovation. Bigger internet businesses move slower and have more stakeholders; they need executives who can build internal relationships, persuade stakeholders and who won’t get frustrated if things move slower than in earlier stage businesses.

I want to move into the internet sector, but I don’t have prior experience, what should I do?

If you don’t have the sector experience, having practical skills at a functional level that are important to internet businesses (e.g. performance marketing, product management, engineering) are very helpful in bridging the gap. Build your personal network with relevant headhunters, CEOs, HR Directors (or internal recruiters) and investors. If they get to know you the person, and your capabilities, they will be much more likely to consider you even if you don’t have the sector experience.

Sometimes a backwards or sideways step can be helpful to you in the long run, even if it’s just a stepping stone to give you the sector experience. You might not want to work at Facebook forever, and would love to be the CEO of your own business, but that Facebook experience might just help you to get there.

Peter Franks is a Partner at headhunting firm Neon River, which specialises in working with internet and technology companies around the world.


Sometimes a backwards or sideways step can be helpful to you in the long run, even if it’s just a stepping stone to give you the sector experience. You might not want to work at Facebook forever, and would love to be the CEO of your own business, but that Facebook experience might just help you to get there.

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Guest Post: Peter Franks - Neon River

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