What’s Up With HuffPo’s CEO and his Spotify History?

As ARW readers will know, the Huffington Post censored my friend and whistleblower Blake Morgan who posted his story from a few years ago about a particularly teachable moment involving his encounter with Spotify’s tone deaf executive class.  (A teachable moment that was reported at the time by Harley Brown at Billboard which makes HuffPo’s lame editorial excuse ring even hollower.)

As producer Michael Beinhorn noted:

My friend Blake Morgan wrote an article criticizing Spotify which was published yesterday on the Huffington Post website. This article began developing traction, but within 2 hours of posting, it was removed from the website and Blake received a vague email from someone at HuffPo as to why. It has since been republished by David Lowery on the Trichordist website, and now includes the email Blake received after HuffPo excised it from their site. One has to wonder why the Huffington Post- which represents itself as a hotbed of liberal thought and free speech, would publish- and then unpublish- something so important (and summarily/subsequently ban its author as a contributor to their website). Could this decision have anything to do with the fact that the current CEO of HuffPo is the former General Counsel and Global Head of Corporate Development at Spotify? Can you say “conflict of interest” or “a threat to my stock options”? Please read and judge for yourself….

Michael makes a very good point here.  According to The Lawyer, the HuffPo CEO, Jared Grusd, exited Spotify in 2015 after working there for four years–2011 to 2015.  While we don’t have knowledge of Mr. Grusd’s dealings with Spotify, we can infer a few likely interesting points from that situation.

First, Mr. Grusd’s tenure (2011-2015) apparently overlapped with Jonathan Prince, Spotify’s head of communications and ex-Clinton and Obama official who formally joined the company in 2014.  My assessment of Mr. Prince is that part of his job would not only be placing positive news about his employer Spotify, but would also be suppressing negative stories like Blake’s post.  To my knowledge, Mr. Prince is still at Spotify.

The particular years that Mr. Grusd was employed by Spotify would start around the time of the company’s U.S. launch and continue for four years, a customary stock option vesting period.  We don’t know what percentage of the company Mr. Grusd owns, but we can assume for the sake of argument that it’s around 1% of the then outstanding stock and that Spotify did not repurchase his shares when he left the company.  Of course, since Mr. Grusd is obviously a very important person and had two roles at Spotify, he could well own (or have the right to buy) a greater portion of the company, but probably less than 5%.  He would probably have been considered something of a late-stage founder for purposes of truing up his initial stock grant and could also have been granted further stock bonuses.

A stock option is the right to purchase stock at a fixed price, usually below market and maybe way below market.  Stock options “vest” over time as a way of incenting employees to stay in their jobs (and are often called “incentive stock options”).  You cannot exercise stock options until they vest.  It’s not uncommon for a company to grant a bunch of these incentive shares to an employee but require the employee to stay at the company for at least 12 months in order to vest at all (called a “cliff”), with monthy vesting thereafter of the remainder of the grant on a prorated basis.  These “incentive stock options” may have certain tax advantages.

So if you were to get 100 stock options on a 12 month cliff with monthly vesting, after one year of employment you’d be able to exercise 25 shares, and each month thereafter you’d be able to exercise 1/36th of the remaining shares, or 25% per year.  (Which can be one reason you see people leaving some startup jobs after four years.)  These shares are almost invariably common stock grants.

How many shares of Spotify stock Mr. Grusd owns and his exercise price will, of course, depend on the number of shares outstanding at the time he was hired and the value of the common stock at that time (leaving aside the “cheap stock” issue), but lets assume that Mr. Grusd got 500,000 shares and that he owns all of them.  But realize that he could easily own much, much more.

When a company goes public, those shares become very valuable because the exercise price of the option is almost always substantially less than the market price of shares.  (Plus, there is something called a “cashless exercise” which allows holders to avoid having to pay anything at all for their stock, “collars” which allow holders to sell their position to a third party, and other tricks of the trade that allow people like Mr. Grusd to “get liquid”.)

Also remember that Spotify’s proposed stock offering according to press reports is to be a “DPO” (a “direct public offering”) not an “IPO” (an underwritten “Initial Public Offering”), an unusual choice by the company which evidently means that there are no underwriters involved.  This move has been criticized by some but lauded by others (which may be evidence of Mr. Prince’s hand).  One feature of the DPO is that it might be easier for someone like Mr. Grusd to sell his shares immediately or at least sooner than with an IPO.  My sense is that Spotify will be under a lower transparency standard between the DPO structure and the fact that Spotify and its Chinese partner Tencent will probably be filing as a foreign issuer (on SEC Form F-1 and not the traditional S-1 for those reading along).  This remains to be seen.

However–Dr. Beinhorn has correctly put his finger on Mr. Grusd’s problem.  If Mr. Grusd has Spotify shares that he holds personally (and not through a blind trust) and as a former Spotify “insider” (for securities law purposes) he appears to have every incentive to keep the murky Spotify story as postitive as he can.  In his current role at HuffPo Mr. Grusd is uniquely positioned to suppress bad Spotify news for his personal enrichment even if Spotify hasn’t offered him anything to do so specifically.

Whether any of this happened, we can’t be sure.  But it sure looks funky.

Another thing that’s funky?  Mr. Grusd was evidently General Counsel of Spotify during the time (2011-2014) that many if not all of the licensing failures occurred that lead directly to all of Spotify’s current litigation problems.  It would be typical for a General Counsel to sign off on something as legal and as critical to the company as its licensing practices (or failures).  Whether that’s leverage for Mr. Prince to extract compliance from Mr. Grusd is something you’d have to ask them–or Spotify’s D&O insurance carrier.

Either way, potential Spotify stockholders buying shares in the public market should be able to hear the good and the bad about the company’s management or mismanagement which Blake was trying to tell them.  I don’t know if a former insider has a legal fiduciary duty to the public (or even to existing stockholders) in this regard, but at a minimum it would certainly be a better look not to suppress stories that could inform the investing public if your CEO really does have a conflict of interest.

So on balance, I think Michael Beinhorn has put his finger on something of extraordinary importance to public policy and the well-being of the investing public in general about which the HuffPo’s readership and potential investors in Spotify ought to educate themselves.

 

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