Time Warner/AOL - A Marriage Made in Hell

I'm not the first and I certainly won't be the last to comment on how it is past-time that Time Warner and AOL split up.  In fact, I never wanted them to get married at all.  It was never going to work - and that's because Steve Case, the then Chairman and CEO of AOL, was leading the charge.

I don't have anything against Mr. Case, personally.  I don't know him.  But what I did know was his company - back from the days when it was America Online and pretty much the King of the Hill in internet providers.

The company provided a service which was both timely and necessary.  It created new worlds and new markets.  It did everything that companies which utilize and codify disruptive technologies are supposed to do.  It created a business model.

But what it never did was focus on its customers.  By far, AOL had some of the worst customer service imaginable - and that at a time when its customers were not only near-hostages (the competitive landscape was dire, to say the least) but, for the most part, neophytes.  The internet was so new that those of us using the dial-up service, while not the fabled "first adopters," were certainly trail-blazers in our own way.  We were taking the risk that we could successfully adopt this new technology and integrate it into our lives and businesses.  

Only in order to do so, we had to depend upon the companies who were providing us access into this new world of technology that few of us understood.

But, Steve Case was convinced that AOL was the answer to all questions.  And long before the merger took place, he had created a corporate culture that did not support customers.  It talked a good game, but its execution left far too much to be desired.  In his own way, he opened the door for the success of his competitors as they entered the field.

As for his mishandling of the merger, in the run-up he made clear that he believed that "old media" were dinosaurs just waiting to become extinct.  He and AOL were the wave of the future.  The old guys wouldn't exist much longer - and would only be able to do so if they got on the new technology wagon.

So, in his world, it wasn't a merger of equals.  He always made it clear that he saw it as the little guy (AOL) taking over the big beast (Time Warner).  Because that was the future.

He was right and he was wrong.  Where he was right was that the technology continues to open new doors and challenge old thinking and mechanisms.  But he was wrong in thinking that his way was the only way.  He punched too far and too arrogantly above his weight and, eventually, got knocked down.  And out of the company.

Over the years, there have been multiple exits from the most senior ranks and divestitures of business lines - but, more than anything, on the AOL side, there has been a loss of customers.  Deservedly so.  Because AOL, in all its hubris, didn't see its own weaknesses.  Neither the company nor Case seemed to realize that big beasts become and remain big beasts for a reason.  There was as much to learn from Time Warner as there was to positively change in order to create a successful whole.

In direct contrast and in the same sector, Amazon has taught every industry - whether in the ether or bricks and mortar - what customer-centric looks like.  The reason Amazon has been so successful - and remains so - is because its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, never forgets why the company exists.  It's all about the customer.

They've gotten things wrong.  They still do.  But, through it all, their focus is on how to not just correct those mistakes but learn from them.  And, in learning from them, they don't just want to figure out how to avoid that particular mistake again, but the context in which that mistake and its solution exist.  Because then the company can innovate new ways of doing business that create the ongoing "wow" factor for all the problems that Amazon solves before they ever hit the consumer's consciousness.

I've been a fan of Amazon since its inception.  During the same time period that AOL was blowing off the customer experience, when I had a problem with Amazon, they always solved it beyond my satisfaction.  (They even, more than once, solved my AOL problems.)  They gained my trust and the trust of tens of millions of other users worldwide - and they continuously work to maintain it.

AOL, in its new/old guise as a stand-alone has a good chance of succeeding.  The reason is because it has new leadership.  Its recently appointed Chairman and CEO, Tim Armstrong, formerly headed advertising sales for Google.  That augurs well for the company because Google, too, knows that the customer is the thing.

For my part, I wish all the players well.  The reason I do so is because the better and smarter they compete with each other, the better off we - their customers - will be.