Ashley Madison chief faces challenge to sort out his affairs
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Posing appears to be top of the job description for Ashley Madison’s chief executive Noel Biderman. Whether it is grinning in front of nearly-naked women with only letters spelling out the ‘King of Infidelity’ covering their breasts, or striking a hush-hush pose with his finger on his lips in front of a giant picture of Bill Clinton, or sprawling provocatively across a leather desk with his wife skulking behind him, Mr Biderman clearly takes his role as the face of the “dating” website seriously.
Ashley Madison — a site for married people seeking to have affairs, owned by Avid Life Media — has been in the spotlight again this week, not for its moral stance but for its equally questionable security. On Tuesday, hackers claimed to have dumped the data of 39m users on to the dark web for their spouses to search through. Then, seemingly unimpressed by the company’s denials, they added a second cache of information, purporting to include emails from Mr Biderman, with a message saying: “Hey Noel, you can admit it’s real now”.
A former sports attorney, Mr Biderman started the company after being called upon by sports star clients to help cover up their affairs. He has since gone on to write a now out-of-print book Cheaters Prosper: How infidelity will save the modern marriage, explaining his theory of how affairs help people stay together. The Toronto-based company has grown to have sales of $115m in 2014, a 45 per cent increase on the year before, and announced in April that it planned to go public in London this year.
But, while most chief executives try to avoid doing photo shoots with nude women, in other ways Mr Biderman is a stereotypical tech leader. He saw a “problem” — people getting found out because their affairs were too close to home — and tried to solve it. He is “disrupting” an existing activity and finding new ways to profit from it (just don’t call it the sharing economy). Mr Biderman even casts his company as trying to change the world, arguing that data showing when people are most likely to have affairs could help improve marriages.
In a TedX talk, he revealed some unsurprising facts — such as men cheat more than women and are enticed more by sex — and some more interesting ones, such as the peak days to join the site are after New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father's day. This, he presumes, is because the events were a disappointment, and 39-year olds are four times more likely to log on than 38-year olds, as they get struck by the fear of turning 40.
One journalist who interviewed him in 2009 said he had already started to cast himself as the cheeky chief executive back then — but the writer did not think he was showing his true colours. “He was a lawyer, a thoughtful, regular guy who became the public face of his company because somebody had to do it. He would have preferred somebody else to do it, that was my impression,” he said. Most notably, Mr Biderman is married with children and has maintained that he has never cheated.
Now, he finds himself with a corporate dilemma that is becoming familiar to chief executives of all stripes, from Sony Pictures to Anthem Healthcare. His business, like many, has two key assets: its data and its customers’ trust. It has lost the first, and risks losing the second.
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