Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The AOL legacy

This column first appeared April 11 in Capital Business, The Washington Post's weekly local business paper, and my daytime job:

It has always been something of a mystery to me why, with all the technology talent we have in the Washington area, the only breakout Internet sensation the region ever produced was AOL.

Sometimes it seems we just don’t think ambitiously enough about our endeavors in this town. I like to goad audiences every now and then: Why not be the next AOL?

Of course, I know as well as anyone there’s a cautionary side to the AOL fable. Here was a company that appeared to defy the laws of economic gravity, until one day, it didn’t.

But it is not the business model that fascinates me so. It is the imprint that company left on the local scene. Plenty of AOL alums have gone on to parent new companies and, inspire other entrepreneurs, to take risks and think big.

That legacy was on display last week when Tim O’Shaughnessy, chief executive at e-commerce upstart LivingSocial, spoke at a breakfast sponsored by the Northern Virginia Technology Council. (Capital Business was a sponsor and O’Shaughnessy is the son-in-law of Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham.)

Seated in the audience was former AOL chairman Steve Case, who once hired O’Shaughnessy to work at Revolution Health and who was an early investor in the deal-making Web operation.

O’Shaughnessy paid homage to Case, and talked about how he wanted to do his part to nuture a new generation of tech mavericks. He promised to be “hugely supportive” of staff who want to start their own companies, even if that means they will be short-timers at LivingSocial.

Better to have them for a brief spell than not have them at all, he reasoned.

For now, employees are probably happy to stay put. The company is acquiring customers at a dizzying rate, and last week it snagged a $400 million investment that values the company at $3 billion.

Lots of people are now paper millionaires. And many are no doubt dreaming about one day starting their own Internet game-changer.