How to Juice AOL: A Spin-Out, Of Course, But Also a Reunion at Dulles HQ?
As soon as he got his new job last week, new AOL Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong sent out a rather hopeful email to the troops–his first communication as the latest leader of the ragtag online service.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing you and would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions,” wrote the former Google (GOOG) exec Friday (who alarmingly kind of resembles this Elvis image), “on how to make AOL and its sister properties the most powerful brands on the Internet.”
Well, one can hope!
To goose that dream, although he still does not officially start in the job until April 7, Armstrong is also addressing all the troops tomorrow at 11 am EST and has chosen to do so from, of all places, AOL’s old center of power in Dulles, Virginia.
AOL staffers I spoke to also hope most of all that Armstrong will quickly and transparently lay out plans for a spin-out of the Time Warner (TWX) online unit from the media conglomerate, where it has languished for years.
“Armstrong would not have taken the job if the plans for a spin out of AOL were not in place and it’s in everyone’s interests to signal that it’s a go right away,” said one source close to the situation. “The only catch is the poor economy, but even that should not prevent Time Warner from doing what’s right to finally fix AOL.”
And sources said Armstrong could further up the ante tomorrow and help raise the layoff-weary morale by having some former AOL execs from its glory days as the top online player in person at the event.
Several sources said one exec most likely to make an appearance is Ted Leonsis (pictured here), one of AOL’s most colorful top early execs and a longtime inspirational figure within its ranks.
Unlike most AOL execs from those days, many of whom were eventually run out on a rail, Leonsis also stayed on through its disastrous merger with Time Warner and beyond.
But, like all of the Dulles complex–which was once the bustling worldwide HQ for AOL–Leonsis finally left the company, after a falling out with the management regime that Armstrong just hipchecked out of power. He is now AOL’s vice chairman emeritus.
Both CEO Randy Falco and President Ron Grant moved AOL’s locus largely to New York, and minimized the staff and influence at Dulles, where most of AOL’s products have been made since its origins in the early 1990s.
“It’s a smart move to go to [the Dulles staff] directly first…the last regime pretty much shut them out…and that created bitterness, when we need to be unified,” wrote one AOL insider to me in an email.
(Sidenote: As the AOL beat reporter at the Washington Post back then, I actually went with then-PR head Jean Case to look over what became the Dulles facility, to see if it would be a good place to expand to; previously, AOL was located in nearby Vienna, behind a car dealership.)
A Leonsis visit at AOL will be like old home week, although some are hoping too that former AOL CEO Steve Case could also make an appearance. He and Leonsis still make online investments together.
But that might still be deeply controversial within Time Warner, where Case and also former Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin are widely blamed for situation that the company found itself in when the Web 1.0 bubble burst and AOL’s once vaunted valuation collapsed.
Although Case and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes have since moved on, bygones have not been bygones within Time Warner.
And, while it is often denied by top execs, AOL has suffered because of ill-hidden grudges, which have partly prevented it from being revived, even as other Internet giants have been born in the interim.
Ironically, many of the current crop of shooting stars owe a lot to the pioneering and innovative AOL products, including: its AIM and ICQ instant messaging services, which echo an early version of Twitter; the “Buddy List,” which was all about friending; and its deep social networking roots, with chat rooms and profiles that were the Facebook of its day.
The question for Armstrong is: Can AOL go home again?