After Losing Jobs, Scott Sassa Wins Friendster
By Grainger David

(FORTUNE Magazine) – When Scott Sassa was approached about taking over the social networking website Friendster, his reaction was typical of someone from the off-line world: "I'm not really interested in running a dating site," he said.

Fast-forward a couple of months. Sassa, 45, a former hotshot TV executive, is Friendster's new CEO. He's been on the job a grand total of five days, buzzing around the company's sparse, undecorated 50-cubicle office in a blue shirt, jeans, and Nikes. He still has an NBC notepad from his former job on his desk. Across a bare conference table, he speaks into a tape recorder: "There is a real opportunity for this to grow to be a business of great scale and size."

What happened here? One answer is that Sassa, 45, ran out of options. The former wunderkind had been fired from Fox Broadcasting and squeezed out of Time Warner (he denies it) and was in charge when Marvel Comics went into bankruptcy. Most recently he was edged aside as president of NBC West Coast by the ever-expanding role of Jeff Zucker. The other answer is that Sassa was lured not by the present state of Friendster but by its potential as a Big Idea.

A quick Friendster primer: The beta-phase, two-year-old startup allows members to post pictures and information about themselves and to network with friends of friends. It has seven million registered members, tons of "stickiness," and no discernible way to make money.

Still, the company is backed with $13 million by blue-chip VCs Kleiner Perkins and Benchmark Capital. The high-profile board includes John Doerr and former Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle. Friendster reportedly turned down a $30 million bid from Google last year, and the whole social networking "space"--companies like Tribe and --trails in its wake.

Sassa and the brain trust are hoping that Friendster will emerge as a powerful peer-to-peer tool that allows people not only to connect socially but also to experience (and pay for) something more, something great, something ... well, they're not really sure yet. "We may not know exactly what the business model is," Sassa admits, "but the notion of having like-minded people provide you with a trusted referral is a really powerful marketing concept."

One problem Friendster faces is declining usage. In its peak month of October 2003 only 1.75 million of the site's seven million registrants visited it. Since then numbers have been falling, and last month the site barely cracked a million visitors, making it, according to comScore Networks, only the 691st-most-popular site on the web, just behind the University of Chicago.

Sassa says that faster, revamped technology will solve the user problem and points out that with international usage factored in, overall traffic is up. But still, the Big Idea is the true goal. "As I looked at it," he says of his decision to sign on with the company, "it started making sense to me that there was an opportunity for, you know, a big company to, um, emerge out of this idea." He sounded pretty sure.

--Grainger David