• Start-ups that flourish give themselves permission to do whatever is necessary to succeed
  • Most acquisitions kill that kind of permssion, forcing the acquired company to adopt the acquirers legacy
  • AOL’s legacy business has been dying for several years
  • AOL’s history of acquisitions has been horrible, because it doesn’t learn from the acquisitions. 
  • AOL’s acquisition, and announced integration, of Huffington Post will likely do nothing to turn around AOL, and probably leave HuffPo about as well off as AOL’s acquisition of  Bebo

After the Super Bowl Sunday Night AOL announced it’s acquisition of The Huffington Post for $350M.  Given that you can’t give away a newspaper company these days, the acquisition shows there is still value in “news” if you understand the right way to deliver it.  HuffPo’s team of bloggers has shown that it’s possible to build a profitable news organization today – if you do it right.  Something the folks at Tribune Corporation still don’t understand. headlined “AOL’s Huffington Post Acquisition Makes Sense for Both Sides.”  For Arianna Huffington and her investors the big cash payout shows a clear win.  They are receiving a pretty penny for their start-up.  Beyond them, it’s less clear.  AOL’s been losing subscribers, and site vistors for years.  They’ve made a number of acquisitions to spark up interest including blogs Engadget, Joystiq, ad network Tacoda and social networking site Bebo.  None of those have flourished – in fact the opposite has happened.  AOL investors lost almost all the $850M spent on Bebo as Facebook crushed it. So far, the AOL track record has been horrible!

AOL clearly hopes HuffPo will bring it new visitors – but whether that works, and whether HuffPo continues growing, is now an open question. reports “AOL Starts Mapping Plans for Huffington Post.”  Unfortunately, it sounds much more as if AOL is trying to integrate HuffPo into its traditional organization – which will most likely do for HuffPo what integrating at News Corp did for MySpace – namely, layering it with “professional management,” additional systems, more overhead and rules for operating.  Or, in other words, bury it in company legacy that strangles its abilitiy to innovate and shift with rapidly emerging market needs.  The company that’s actually growing, winning in the marketplace, isn’t AOL.  It’s HuffPo.  If there’s any “integrating” needed it should be figuring out how to push AOL into HuffPo – not vice-versa.

As the New York Times headlined, this acquisition is “AOL’s Bet on Another Makeover.”  And that’s what’s wrong.  The acquisitions AOL made were pre-purchase successful because they were White Space endeavors that had close connection to the market.  The founders gave their organization permission to do whatever it took to be successful, without artificial constraints based upon legacy.  Their acquisitions have not used by AOL to create White Space with better market receptors – to teach AOL where growth lies.  Rather, AOL has hoped they can use the acquisition to defend and extend their old success formula.  AOL has hoped the acquisitions would allow them to slow the market shift, and preserve legacy operations. 

As we’ve seen, that simply does not work.  Markets shift for good reason, and the only way a business can thrive is to shift with them.  At AOL the smart move would be to let Arianna run the show!  A few months ago AOL purchased TechCrunch and ever since Michael Arrington, the founder, has been villifying AOL management for its bureaucracy and inability to adapt.  What Mr. Armstrong, the relatively new CEO at AOL misses is that AOL’s business is dead.  AOL needs to find an entirely new way of operating – and that’s what these acquisitions bring.  AOL needs to get out of the way, let the acquisitions flourish, and learn something from them.  AOL management needs to accept that the old AOL business model is rubbish, and what it must do is allow the acquisitions to operate in White Space, then learn from them!  But that’s not been the history of AOL’s purchases, and doesn’t look like the case this time.

Mr. Armstrong could learn a lot from Sir Richard Branson.  Virgin has made many acquisitions, and developed several new companies.  He doesn’t try to integrate them, or drive them toward any particular business model  From Virgin Airways to Virgin Money to Virgin Health Bank to Virgin Games (and all the other businesses) the requirement is that the business be tightly linked to market needs, operate in new ways and find out how to grow profitably.  Virgin moves toward the new markets and businesses, it doesn’t expect the businesses to conform to the Virgin model. 

I’d like to think AOL could learn from HuffPo and dramatically change.  But from the announcements this week, it doesn’t look likely.  AOL still looks like a management team desperately trying to save its old business, but without a clue how to do so.  Too bad for AOL.  Could be even worse for those who read HuffPo.