Lessons for entrepreneurs in HuffPo/AOL deal

Posted on February 09, 2011 by Janet Coats

The big news in the media world this week is the unexpected announcement that AOL was buying the Huffington Post for $315 million and putting Arianna Huffington in charge of all editorial content for the company.

For a site that was once mocked by mainstream journalists as a celebrity vanity project, this announcement is a milestone in HuffPo’s five-year journey from startup to established site. I still remember the skepticism of some members of the American Society of News Editors when we invited Arianna Huffington to appear on a panel at ASNE’s annual convention to talk about news in the digital age.

I’ll leave it to others, including my husband and business partner Rusty Coats, to analyze the pros and cons of this deal. However it works out, this deal has me thinking about the lessons it can teach other news entrepreneurs.

First, there’s the issue of growing beyond start-up status. Huffington Post was never a bootstrap startup – it began with the advantages of attention and funding. But it also began in an atmosphere of skepticism. In an article in the New York Times about the origins of the site, we’re reminded of the prejudices that dogged blogs and bloggers five years ago – the idea that all blogs were less than professional, run by creepy guys working in their pajamas in their basements.

Beyond Huffington Post’s celebrity was a strategy, and it is a strategy that took shape with the evolution of digital media during the last five years. HuffPo understood the value of buzz, of search engine optimization, of social media. That’s part of the value that the site brings to AOL – an understanding of how information moves through social networks instead of through single channels.

But it’s not Huffington Post’s approach that provides the lesson for other entrepreneurs. It is the understanding of the space you occupy, scanning that space for new opportunities that are a fit with your mission, and the strategic development of tools and business strategies to help you execute on that mission. It is not enough to have a good initial idea. You have to develop the strategies and organizational discipline to execute on it, and the metrics to help you track your progress – or tell you when you are off course.

The second lesson is one I’ve written about before: being open to sometimes unlikely alliances.

I dare say almost no one saw the AOL/HuffPo deal on the horizon. You can debate about whether this marriage is a good one (and plenty of pundits have), but each party has been able to articulate pretty clearly what they hope to get out of joining forces. Huffington Post sees a chance to expand its audience; AOL sees an opportunity for a stronger editorial identity and social media strategy.

It is tempting for any entrepreneur to believe that he can go it alone, purely on the basis of his ideas. But there comes a point in the evolution of any good idea when you need to adjust your scale. You will need an infusion of cash, capacity or intellectual capital somewhere along the line. Rare is the entrepreneur who can bring all the assets she’ll need to succeed to her enterprise; at some point, you’ll partners who help complete the picture.

The key, of course, is choosing partners who can truly do that, who are additive to your work and who won’t dilute or misdirect it. That’s where really understanding who you are – and who you aren’t – comes into play. We’ll see over time whether Arianna Huffington and Tim Armstrong of AOL chose well. Either way, this is a cultural merger to watch, for all the lessons it can teach the rest of us about partnership and identity in the digital age.

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