My Secret Sauce: Interdisciplinary Thinking
Ted Leonsis, Vice Chairman, America Online
About thirty years ago, when I was a student at Georgetown University, a mentor of mine – Father Joseph Durkin – introduced me to the idea that ideas don’t have boundaries. Father Durkin called it “interdisciplinary thinking.” And, some ten years later, it was that kind of thinking that led me to the concept of “new media,” but that’s jumping ahead of the story.
Back in 1976, interdisciplinary thinking gave me the idea to use an IBM 360 mainframe to prove that Ernest Hemingway actually wrote The Old Man and the Sea in the mid 1940’s, not in 1951 when it was finally published. In 1980, interdisciplinary thinking got me to thinking about computers and publishing, which resulted in the Leonsis Index of Software Technology. This was the first-ever guide to software publication. It was profitable from the first issue and sold for $60 million when I was twenty-five years old.
In 1986, I created Redgate Communications Corporation (named after my college roommate’s family farm, which looked to me at the time like an ultimate symbol of achievement). Redgate was an advertising and public relations company that also produced shopping guides on CD-ROM and became known in the industry as the first “new media” marketing company.
Sometimes I’m asked how I came up with the term “new media.” It goes back to interdisciplinary thinking. I was in the middle of all these discussions about computers, television, telecommunications, and publishing when I realized what we were all talking about was a new kind of media that’s digitalized and delivered over many platforms.
Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. At one point, I was mortgaging some of my property to keep it going. At another time, I met payroll with my American Express card. I eventually met a couple of guys who gave us a little venture capital; they were truly angel investors.
It was a good lesson for me. Even when you’re down, you’re definitely not out. Think big picture. Think interdisciplinary. Wayne Gretzky said the key is not skating with the puck but rather skating to where the puck’s going to be. Figuring that out is easier when you remove the boundaries around ideas. That’s what I did when I figured out how to bring Michael Jordan to Washington as president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards.
That’s what I did some twenty years earlier when I created a list of 101 things to do in my life after surviving a plane crash landing. I don’t recommend this as a way to encourage big picture thinking, but it sure worked for me.
The list has gotten a lot of attention, but it allowed me to identify seven disciplines, if you will, that were important to me: family matters, financial matters, possessions, charities, sports, travel, and stuff. So far, I’ve checked off about 75 percent of the things on the list. Everything from paying off college debts to creating the world’s largest media company.
No one goal is inherently less possible than another. So it is in life. So it is in business.
In 1994, Steve Case and AOL bought Redgate for $40 million, and I came with the deal. AOL at the time was valued at $500 million. The stock then split seven times. AOL started out as an online service company. Today, it’s a media company that generates more than $8.5 billion in sales and has more than twenty-six million paying customer relationships on a global basis. In 2005, with 19,000 employees, we generated more than $1.8 billion in profit.
AOL’s strengths lie in its member community and its communication features – e-mail, instant messaging, search, social networking, and checking out new content. Consumers want new tools to help them use these features, create their own content, share their content with others, and find other content of interest to them.
In other words, they want interdisciplinary means to relate to an interdisciplinary world. So it is in business. So it is in life.
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.