VIENNA, VA. — I grew up in this northern Virginia town 20 minutes outside Washington, D.C. As did the company formerly known as America Online, before it moved to the more-distant suburb of Sterling — sorry, "Dulles." That's where it will continue to be headquartered for a few more months, before its top executives decamp to New York. Somehow I doubt that AOL CEO Randy Falco knows, or cares, about that piece of AOL's history, as he and COO Ron Grant prepare to dismember the struggling Time Warner Internet business. I'm the first to admit that I'm a geek nostalgia junkie. And really, do AOL's roots have much to do with any of the problems it's facing today?
Yes, I'd argue. If only because it's a case study in the promise and perils of being on the edge of things. In the '80s and '90s, being an outsider and underdog helped AOL, as Kara Swisher chronicled in her book aol.com.. The conventional wisdom was that America Online would fail. And yet, time and again, it succeeded — because, isolated from the rest of the tech industry, the voices of AOL's customers rang louder in employees' ears. Hearing them out was the company's secret weapon against Microsoft and the rest.
Somewhere along the road, though, AOL stopped listening. Hubris? A lot of that, for sure. Was it the merger with Time Warner? Admittedly, a distraction. The inevitable decline of the dial-up business? When you start thinking of your customers as cash flow, paying attention to their wants and needs is just another cost center.
That AOL is reorganizing all of its online-advertising units into a new business, Platform A, and moving its headquarters to New York suggests that the customer it wants to listen to these days is Madison Avenue. Rumors that AOL may make large cuts in its programming and products divisions suggest that users are not at the top of the priority list.
I'm not going to ding a capitalist enterprise for bending its ears towards the jingle of money. But from what I've gathered, there's not a lot of listening going on in AOL's Dulles headquarters. Or talking. Let's change that, shall we?
Your bosses may not be talking to you, AOL employees, but I'm all ears. Family business, fortuitously, has brought me to your neighborhood. (Or is my cousin's bar mitzvah just a cover story? I'll let you decide.) I'm a quick drive down the Dulles Toll Road. Let's get coffee. Drop me a line.