AOL?!? Really?

By now most of my friends and colleagues and readers know that I resigned from my job at Yahoo! nearly a month ago. The meantime has flown by like a dream. B and I went to New Orleans and I was able to enjoy Jazzfest with no “homework” on my mind for the first time in years. I spoke in Minneapolis on the Web App Masters Tour, returned home, and last week I spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.

In the midst of all this, a week ago Friday I started my new job at AOL.

I’ve started joking with my friends that I must have joined a company called “AOL!? Really?!?” because that’s the first thing out of most people’s mouths. (The ones who can speak, that is – some just boggle their eyes at me.) To be honest, when my friend and mentor, Matte Scheinker, first told me he had come out of retirement to take a new role at AOL as VP for consumer experience I reacted in almost exactly the same way.

For anyone who’s fought the good fight at Yahoo! against a headwind of Bay Area techie-insider scorn, it might seem like moving to AOL would be a matter of taking on more of the same.

But I listened to what Matte had to tell me about his new gig, and the more I heard about it the more intrigued I got. First of all, I like the idea of a company embracing a turnaround effort head on. At Yahoo! we were winning in enough categories that I did not always feel a sense of urgency in the culture about fixing and improving the areas that needed it.

At AOL I feel a bracing awareness: “now or never, do or die!” The new management team has wasted no time remaking AOL, taking it public again, refreshing the brand, repositioning the strategy, and challenging its employees to excel and win.

At some point while we were talking I realized that Matte was recruiting me to join his team, to help him place design thinking and a laserlike focus on customer experience at the heart of the (digital/software) product development process. In some ways, this is a designer or UX guy’s “put your money where you mouth is” moment, where the leadership of a major corporation says, “OK, you’ve been arguing that the customer is key and that design is a tool that is relevant to a company’s strategy and business processes, so now prove it.”

While I enjoyed my role curating the Yahoo! pattern library immensely, and it provided me with plenty of ego-boosting attention in the user experience design community, I did not always feel like I was able to exert my influence within the company in a concrete, effective way. I was there to offer advice and set an example, but I did not always have the ability to put into action ideas about how to make better products and how to employ better processes.

Further, AOL is aggressively interested in reshaping the world of media, publishing, content, attention, and advertising. This has been my wheelhouse since before the web. I came from book publishing, where I was astonished at the 19th century business practices I saw. The upheaval ripping through the worlds of publishing and journalism are messy and frightening for those being tossed about by the rapid changes, but I’m convinced that new models will emerge to connect people with the information and ideas and art and entertainment they want, and people will be compensated for their talents, yes and empires will grow up around these new models of weaving it all together.

AOL is playing in exactly that space. For example, AOL’s Seed beta and the Patch startup AOL recently acquired both represent (to me) very interesting experiments:

  • Rethinking the “content” business and the infrastructure (is “supply chain” too industrial a term for creative work?) for cultivating high quality writing.
  • Exploring the capabilities the web offers and the types of flows the web favors.
  • Sourcing small pieces of content.
  • Targeting hyperlocal geographies.

I honestly believe AOL has a shot at turning around its fortunes and rejuvenating its illustrious brand and I’m excited to have the opportunity to help the product teams at AOL perform to their highest abilities and succeed at delivering content and experiences that are better than the best of what the Internet has to offer (we call this goal “beating the Internet”).

Are the odds long? Yes, of course they are. That’s what makes the challenge so ambitious and so exciting.

So, yes, AOL. Really!


7 responses to “AOL?!? Really?”

  1. A.J. Pape Avatar

    xian –

    You’ve been a personal, intellectual and cultural example to me as both a friend and professional since the days we had odd-looking drinks in San Francisco out of little bubbling cauldron kinds of glasses. ( 92, 93?)

    I’m inspired by the integrity and thoughtfulness of your choice and looking forward to watching, supporting and benefiting from your bold experiments.

    rock on!

  2. Stephen Mack Avatar

    If anyone can turn AOL around, it’s you, Xian! Best of luck and I’ll be watching with interest.

  3. Dossy Shiobara Avatar

    As a former AOL’er, I say: congratulations, and good luck. AOL has been plagued with great ideas, devoted teams and key opportunities … but poor execution.

    I don’t know if the management du jour is going to be able to address that problem, but you’ve got to give it a try, right?

  4. Julio Hernandez-Miyares Avatar

    As a former AOL’er who volunteered out this past January, I concur with Dossy especially surrounding the nature of the teams at AOL. There are a lot of passionate, devoted, talented, innovated sorts still at AOL , some there for more then 5 years and some of more recent vintage. Word of advice, watch out for the politicians – smoke them out (not hard ). Don’t under-estimate the tenacity of some of the remaining politicos . Good luck and wish the best for AOL

  5. Uncle Tom Avatar
    Uncle Tom

    Christian, going over to the enemy!!! Aunt Carol swears at AOL just about every other day as it boots her off line for no good reason. I plod along wondering what else will be changed requiring me to learn yet again a new way to get at my AOL email. Maybe now that we have a smart relative in the enemy camp we can stage a coup and get the thing right after all.

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