David Colburn: Prepared to get biblical on your ass Back when he ran ad sales at AOL in the late '90s, David Colburn earned himself quite the nickname. The peons called him God — you know, the guy who turns water to blood and rains locusts down from the heavens. Once, at a holiday party in December 1999, Colburn called three rabbis up on stage and told them to pray for AOL's success, promising to donate $1 million to any Jewish cause if AOL's stock hit certain levels. The rabbis agreed, startling offended partygoers. But according to author Alec Klein, who recounts the anecdote in his book Stealing Time, none of them were about to say anything.
Who wanted to incur the wrath of David Colburn? There was so much to David Colburn, all of it so outrageous and comical and scary and brilliant and successful and charitable, that he almost defied human description. And yet there he was an open book, a raging, exploding caricature of a personality, a combustible force of nature.
A source who used to sit on the other side of the negotiation table from Colburn tells us that the ex-AOLer was an "evil fucker" who "scared the shit out of me, back in the day." Klein describes Colburn's negotiation tactics in a similar vein:
His was a bone-jarring negotiating technique that was filled with swearing and threatening. During one phone call in his office, he was heard yelling at someone, belittling him, tearing him down, screaming, "Don't be a fucking idiot!" Someone, who happened to be passying by, asked another bystander whom Colburn was talking to. "A client," came back the answer. "David had such a reputation that you could always use his presence as a threat," said Neil Davis, a former senior vice president. "It was like, 'If we can't get over this issue, we have to get David on the phone' I could always invoked David as teh court of appeals." "His presence just caused a ripple of fear," said an AOL official who worked for him. "You could always hear him coming."
Once worth an estimated $250 million, Colburn in May settled an SEC lawsuit alleging he and other former AOL execs schemed in 1990s to overstate AOL's earnings by some $1 billion. Next:TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington: Doesn't discriminate — holds everyone in contempt