FriendFinder’s New CEO Takes Over the Reins

Rhett Pardon

Kenny Hawk, FriendFinder Networks’ new CEO, has a certain vision for the adult dating brand and operator of Penthouse Entertainment — one with a laser-sharp focus.

Hawk, who just took over the reins of one of the most technologically advanced Internet companies on the planet in late January from founder Andrew Conru, plans on a number of key adjustments that will keep the company on its path of growth: Faster experiences for users, easier business dealings with partners and an initiative to put more emphasis on mobile as more users gravitate there.

When you add haptic technology with real-time motion controlled and felt by two people watching each other enjoy those sensations on live cam it will be amazing. This will change the cam industry and I believe it will penetrate a much larger share of the mainstream market.

FriendFinders’ new CEO is no stranger to technology, particularly startups, having led numerous wireless and software companies by building sterling teams, raising capital and driving revenue. He also is no stranger to adult-oriented businesses, having managed the Jimmyjane novelty brand.

In this Presidential Suite interview, XBIZ World wanted to find out more about FriendFinder’s new CEO, and see where the company is heading.

XBIZ: When did you start leading FriendFinder Networks as CEO, and how did the torch get passed to you?

HAWK: A venture capitalist friend that backed Hotmail, Skype and Tesla introduced me to our largest debt holder in the fall of 2013. They were searching for an independent board member with tech experience. I sensed the incredible potential and joined the board in December 2013. I was very active on the board recruiting our new CFO and helping the executive team develop a long-term strategic plan. I was honored when the board asked me to join as CEO on Jan. 29, this year.

XBIZ: You’ve headed numerous companies as CEO, some adult and some mainstream. Is there a difference between the two?

HAWK: Surprisingly there are more similarities than differences, at least for the high-growth wireless businesses I’ve built. Both use cutting-edge technology to innovate and compete. You need smart, nimble, diverse team members to build tech startups, the same traits help you win in the adult sector. The difference is the adult market is a very closed knit industry with camaraderie you don’t find in most mainstream markets. I was initially hesitant to enter the adult market when Jimmyjane’s two largest investors asked me to help them accelerate growth. I fell in love with the products and was pleasantly surprised by the talented fun people in our industry. A unique advantage of FriendFinder that is rare in the adult market is the majority of our executive leadership team are women.

XBIZ: What are some of your priorities with FriendFinder and its properties?

HAWK: In 2014, our founder Andrew Conru lead the team in executing over 1,000 product improvements across our portfolio of online brands while reeling in ad spend. With our improved products 2015 is the year we invest for growth. We recently hired 12 strong team members and are actively recruiting more engineers in Silicon Valley.

Our 2015 priorities are:

  • Make our products so crisp and clear that our customers enjoy sexy experiences faster and easier.
  • Reach out to our industry to re-kindle and grow our relationships and become the easiest partner to do profitable business with.
  • Become a mobile first company while preserving the core dating and webcam experience on larger screens.
  • Empower our team to execute on our strategic plan with laser focus. Do only a few things but do them well.

XBIZ: How important are FriendFinder partners in terms of revenue for the company?

HAWK: Our partners are crucial to the success of our business. We spend over $1 million per week investing in our partners and working closely with them to bring new members to our sexy online experiences. Buying the right traffic, making sure it converts and delivering real value to members is a delicate ecosystem that needs to be nurtured through the entire cycle. Frankly, we didn’t focus enough in this area and want the industry to know this is now a top priority. Over the years we also collected too much red tape and made it hard to do business with us. Today is a new day and we are open and eager to work with smart partners that want to make money together.

XBIZ: Is the company considering any new developments or acquisitions in 2015?

HAWK: We have so much opportunity within our four walls and broad portfolio of brands our focus will be investing in organic growth, making our company an even better place to work, and delivering more value to our members and webcam models.

XBIZ: One adult live cams company plans to introduce virtual reality into the mix with customers and models, using haptic technology and an Oculus Rift headset. Do you think that will be the future of the cams biz?

HAWK: While running Jimmyjane I thought a lot about new vibration tech and remote sex. Fleshlight has a great sleeve for men and the vibration components are getting better every year. When you add haptic technology with real-time motion that is controlled and felt by two people watching each other enjoy those sensations it will be amazing. This will change the cam industry and I believe it will penetrate a much larger share of the mainstream market — pun intended. While Oculus Rift is promising, I think that technology will take a few more years to make a real impact.

XBIZ: How important is the mobile market for FriendFinder?

HAWK: Mobile traffic is crucial to our future and the growth of our industry. Becoming a mobile first company is one of our top four priorities. Many companies get this wrong. It is not about porting your desktop product to mobile. To be successful you need to look at the entire ecosystem, target customer, traffic sources, product feature set, user experience and start with mobile. We are getting better at this and our engineers and marketing team are working hard in this area.

XBIZ: Next month will mark 50 years for Penthouse magazine. Do you think it will continue publishing in print for another 50 years?

HAWK: Kelly Holland has done an amazing job preserving and growing the Penthouse brand. While the global magazine industry is in decline there is something special about the touch and feel of a Penthouse magazine. Most men my age remember sneaking, buying, or stealing their first magazine from their father. I believe Kelly will find a way to profitably keep the magazine while continuing to grow our Penthouse HD broadcast business globally.

XBIZ: Do you have any concerns for the health of the adult entertainment industry?

HAWK: I live in Silicon Valley and like Andrew Conru started my first business while still at Stanford. The entrepreneurial spirit here is like nothing else in the world. When I’m at dinner parties with friends from Apple and Google the conversations always seem to gravitate towards our sexy industry not to their next widget or app. Google succumbing to outside pressures and tightening the grip around search engine marketing for the adult industry is a serious headwind. After a coordinated successful social media campaign last week Apple changed their mind and reversed the ban on MassRoots (social network app for discovering cannabis). This is a step in the right direction. I would love to see our industry help both of these tech leaders become more open.

XBIZ: What adult companies and/or who inspires you in the industry?

HAWK: [Playboy founder] Hugh Hefner was one of my childhood heroes. He is a great example of the entrepreneurial spirit of America. He took on a taboo subject, built one of the world’s most recognized brands and paved the way for the amazing industry we enjoy today. It is on my bucket list to play cards with him at the mansion this year.

XBIZ: What’s a typical workday like?

HAWK: We provide breakfast to our entire team so I grab a coffee, hard-boiled egg and catch up with different team members to start each day. I focus on the one most important thing I need to accomplish first and keep meetings to a minimum. We meet as an executive team one hour every Monday to review our key performance indicators and customer feedback, triage any anomalies, stay aligned and hold each other accountable to a handful of priorities. I believe in the power of focus and empowering smart people to work hard and have fun.

XBIZ: When not thinking about the biz, what do you like to do?

HAWK: I enjoy cooking with my partner and teaching her tennis.