What’s really going on at Mail.ru?

There’s no doubt that Mail.ru is one of Russia’s most powerful internet players. It has gone from being a struggling web firm in the late 1990s to a real Runet force — and helped boost the careers of many local entrepreneurs along the way. But has it reached a watershed moment?
Last week the news came through that Yuri Milner, the man many credit with turning the company around, was standing down as chairman. The reason, ostensibly, is so that he can focus on the investments he’s making through Digital Sky Technologies: after all, he is trying to raise a $1 billion fund right now.
Since then it has also emerged that fellow co-founder Mikhail Vinchel had sold most of his shares in the company, netting $124 million.
So what does this all mean?
In some ways, perhaps this is just time taking its course. Mail.ru went public nearly 18 months ago, a move that buoyed the company’s coffers — not least because it gave ordinary investors the chance to get a second-hand stake in Facebook, Zynga and others. No surprise, then, that those with significant stakes in the business decide to head off after while.
But the departure of such key figures certainly sends out an interesting message. Whenever founders pull out there are always questions about the future. And while Mail.ru is posting pretty good results, it is also seeing its search share drop and its share price has been a little erratic.
That’s left some industry analysts unimpressed.
Gazeta.ru quotes several industry analysts who feel that the company may have hit its peak.

“From our point of view, the growth potential is limited and we do not see further growth of the business,” says Konstantin Chernyshev of Uralsib. “Most likely they are considering investing in other internet projects.”

If that’s the case, then we’re just watching senior figures cash out at the top, leaving behind whatever mess comes next for somebody else to deal with.
Or perhaps that’s too harsh. Certainly not everyone agrees. Forbes takes a dispassionate view of things: In an editorial on Milner’s departure, it essentially makes the argument did his job, and he’s earned the right to go off and do other things.

Milner has fulfilled his promiseā€¦ very few people were surprised when Milner sold his shares in Mail.ru, leaving little more than 3 percent behind. He worked for investors, now it’s time to work for himself.

Last year we pondered what it meant when senior figures cash out of tech companies, and ended up looking at a very mixed picture. Sometimes it doesn’t stop the business from flying; sometimes it’s a signal that something is not right. The only way to really know which way Mail.ru will go may be to wait and see.