The Challenger Explosion of the Year 2000

I remember walking out of the library and seeing students and faculty crowded around a television set that had been wheeled into the lobby. The news was on. The space shuttle, Challenger, had exploded just after take-off, presumably killing everyone onboard.

For my parents’ generation, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Everyone knew where they were when the news broke. For me, it was the Challenger explosion, and then 9/11.

Between Challenger and 9/11, there was an event in business which I would submit was equally seismic in its own way. I’m referring to AOL’s purchase of Time-Warner. The purchaser was America Online, (so named despite the fact that the vast majority of America was distinctly notonline). In the year 2000, using the new terminology of “banner ads” and “chat rooms,” AOL generated enough cash to buy the venerable Time-Warner company, home to such media stalwarts as CNN, HBO, and Time.

The explosion? AOL owned no inventory. There were no studios, on-air talent or magazines hitting the newsstands.  It was, to many, vapor.  Yet here it stood as the conqueror of all we knew as media.  Intellectual property had arrived.

It is now conventional wisdom that Intellectual Property (or “IP”) often constitutes a company’s most valuable asset. Valuations hinge not just on warehouse inventory, but also on the value of brand. More to the point, brand is no longer something to be reserved for Kelloggs® or Samsung®. IP must now be every company’s focus.

Not long ago, a client called me about an internet copycat site. The site used their domain and attached .biz to it instead of their own .com and .net. We were engaged to get it back.  Our job was made infinitely easier because the company had the foresight to trademark its domain name. While not always a possibility, the trademark in this case was not just what the company put in fancy font on its brochures. Rather it was a “word” that thousands of customers used every day to reach it.

When it comes to national tragedies such as Challenger, the assassination of JFK or 9/11, our nation looks back to mourn, but also maintains a healthy focus on learning for the future. Therein lies the lesson of AOL.

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