Why He Left Merrill

By Jeffrey Rothfeder  |  Posted 2004-01-28 Print this article Print

Why did you leave Merrill and take the job at AOL?

Ultimately, you get to a point where you want to take the next hill. I really wanted to get back to a role in a technology organization. Technology has been, and always will be, my one true passion professionally.

And when you decide to move on, you should look for an organization with a couple of critical attributes. One is key strengths. For AOL, that means a well-known brand and tremendous reach—111 million unique visitors viewed the AOL core service or Web properties like Mapquest. Another is that the organization must fit with you personally and culturally. You want to find a place where, because of your skills, you can make an impact. Responding aggressively to threats posed by other technology-enabled competitors, ensuring that our technology strategy addresses the unique needs of a wide continuum of consumers, and running a high-volume operation with zero tolerance for downtime—these are AOLs primary challenges for a technologist. And Ive succeeded at them before, most prominently at Merrill.

It could be argued that AOL is in much worse shape than Merrill was when you got there, because at least Merrills overall business was still growing at the time, even if it faced aggressive competition. How do you fix a company thats losing its primary customer base the way AOL is?

I would argue that the subscription numbers dont tell the whole story. You have to consider all of our properties, and when you do, you see significant growth in usage: Mapquest is up 34 percent this year, theres continuing growth in IM activity, and the same goes for other AOL sites. With 111 million users across all properties, we have a great opportunity to leverage every touchpoint with consumers and to be a central participant in technology shifts such as the emergence of broadband and the wireless Web.

The challenge for us as the executive team is to shift from historically viewing AOL as a mono-line company—as a single destination—to viewing it as a more complex multiproduct, multibrand and multichannel environment. Its about providing choice, and thats the key analog to Merrill. We should be an option for Internet users to do whatever they want to do on the Web from wherever they want to do it—whether theyre high-volume, high-literate Internet users or not—so they dont have to go to other companies for individual aspects of their Internet experience. Its a big transition as a business model and will add many more cylinders to AOL.

In broadband, we want to be the first organization to define the category of streaming broadband, bringing relevant content and relevant programming into the broadband household. We want to let people search for the video and music they want to view and listen to. We plan to build on our initiatives with antivirus programs and expand on voice mail to provide other voice services. We helped define categories like instant messaging, chat, discussion boards and e-mail, and we have to continue to be thought leaders in social software. We want to provide other à la carte and premium services, such as being a place for people to store pictures, documents and e-mails they create or receive while theyre on the Web. It makes sense. What you want is all your assets available all the time, regardless of where you are. This is especially important for our multichannel users, who will be a larger and larger portion of our customer base. Part of the day, people will need to access us from their laptops or at home on high-speed DSL or cable, or a smart phone or communication-enabled PDA.

Next Page: The soup-to-nuts experience.


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