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A Funny Story About Patch and Aol

This is a funny story from about 3 years ago at Aol. If you are a lawyer or PR flack at Aol and want me to remove this, just let me know, but I don’t think this really hurts anybody and it shows a little bit about Tim Armstrong’s commitment to the cause, which I don’t think is bad.

I attended a senior leadership offsite at Aol shortly after Tim Armstrong joined the company. The first order of business for Tim was deciding on the three or four things we wanted to focus on as a business to be great. One of the areas that Tim proposed was “Local”. Keep in mind, this was before Patch, etc.. Tim used the exact same verbiage to describe local as he does today: “It’s a big white space with no winners”.

So he had all 100+ senior people vote on “what we should focus on” and local lost. So, in deference to senior leadership, Tim took local off the table. We came out of that meeting with three areas of focus for Aol as a business. But you could tell that Tim thought we could have local and he was deferring to people to show that he could compromise, etc.

I think it only took a few months before he acquired Patch, re-engineered the senior leadership team around Jon Brod and made huge, sweeping investments in local.

Moral of the story: Maybe people should just let the CEO set the direction and then people can move on with their lives. Trying to explain to a CEO what an organization isn’t good at is like talking to a wall sometimes – and with good reason! The CEO is the only person who has the power to make an organization good at something.

You can make fun of Patch, but Tim followed his heart and his gut with where the market opportunity was and other than that one moment when he wanted to show people he was a nice guy in the first few months of his tenure, he has never looked back. I suspect he looks back on that meeting with regret. Don’t ask people’s opinion if you aren’t interested in hearing them! Or maybe, more importantly, don’t tell them their opinion matters if it doesn’t.

Sidebar: I love the Aol logo. The Google/Microsoft/Yahoo! logos bore me to death. When I talk with start-ups about logos, I always tell them that most people can’t do what Aol did. Aol could have a million logos because when you spend that much on consumer branding, people will get the message. With my last start-up, I always felt like I would spend so little on marketing in the life of the company that almost no one would even see the one logo. When you have a huge brand, that ain’t a problem. And I love the playful spirit and ability to do fun things with that.


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