AOL failed because it focused on quarterly results and had a big cash cow in the dial-up business. Those should be good things, right? After all, that’s what Wall Street wants.
Yes and no. Day traders benefit from these two things because they result in volatility. Buy-and-hold investors shouldn’t care about monthly and quarterly earnings.
After the Time Warner merger, AOL’s focus was largely on quarterly numbers. The company was managed to earnings metrics. As a result, innovation suffered. Products were expected to return results immediately. If it couldn’t help the quarter or the year, it wasn’t going to get investment. Projects that could have helped the company remain a competitor for the long term were jettisoned.
It wasn’t for lack of talent. Some really bright minds worked at AOL. We had the ideas behind Twitter and Facebook before those companies were around. One AOLer was an early Facebook employee and now owns the Golden State Warriors. Three others went on to make fortunes at Twitter, while helping in the early stage of that company’s development.
The cash cow seems like a great thing. But in reality, it can be a detriment. The focus stays on the cash cow because that’s where the leadership wants to be. Who wants to work in a money losing division when you could run a business that makes $5 billion in profit annually? Some of these people actively work to sabotage the emerging businesses. Especially when large annual layoffs put their careers at risk.
AOL also lacked lock in. Or, more accurately, it blew the lock in it had. Remember AIM? (Also know as AOL Instant Messenger.) AIM was a huge social network that existed well before Facebook. People lived on AIM to interact with their friends. AIM was the market leader for a long, long time. But AIM never had a business model, so it didn’t get the investment that it should have relative to its strategic importance to the company.
How big is instant messaging now? Big enough that Facebook paid $19 billion to acquire it. That’s more than four times the $4.4 billion Verizon is paying for AOL.
That shows that Facebook is a long-term thinker. Instagram and WhatsApp had very little in the way of business models when acquired. (They still don’t.) But Facebook saw the threat of their rapid growth and picked them up.
Google is similar in its long-term thinking. Although some investors criticize the money invested in initiatives such as self-driving cars, Google Fiber, Google Shopping, Google presses on. Google Maps was similarly mocked. Now it is a key advantage over Apple. Some questioned Google’s investment in Android. No one is questioning that now.
Even Google’s failures show that it’s willing to take risks. Remember Google+ and Google Glass? Knowledge from those experiences will undoubtedly be put into thinking on new products.
According to Business Insider’s Jillian D’Onfro, Google keeps a bench of talented executives who might no longer be a fit for their old role to put into new roles. It pays talented people to stick around in case there’s a need for them later. That never would’ve happened at AOL.
Google and Facebook have a huge advantage over companies such as AOL: They have dual-class stock structures that mean that the founders control the company. Don’t like this quarter’s earnings? Too bad. We’re going to do what we want. Don’t want us to invest money in self-driving cars? Go sell your stock.
This frees them from the dumb, short-term questions that analysts often ask during earnings calls. (The analysts still ask dumb questions; the companies can ignore them without worrying about hostile takeovers.)
The companies also have lock in to a degree that companies rarely have.
If you want to connect with your friends and family, you have to be on Facebook. Try starting up a competing social network today — it’s not easy to get the same mass and degree of connectivity that Facebook has. The hype about millennials quitting Facebook is just that: hype. Just because someone is on Snapchat doesn’t mean that they’re not on Facebook.
If you want to reach consumers who are looking for something specific, there is no better place than Google. If you’re an advertiser, you have to be there. Because it’s an auction model and everyone wants to be there, Google gets the highest possible revenue for each search.
It’s extremely hard to get over the long-term thinking and lock in that Facebook and Google have. That’s why they’re 100-year companies.