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AOL's Leonsis Bears Jabs, Gab At Venture Markets South Conference

By Esther T. Smith

Editor-at-Large

ATLANTA - Ted Leonsis, America Online's king of content, gave the Netplex an enthusiastic boost at Red Herring's Venture Markets South conference in Atlanta last week.

Admitting being surprised by "how vibrant" the region is for Internet start-up companies, Leonsis predicted that expansive, "go-for-it" content plays and transaction companies that help generate new revenues - Netplex strong suits - will form the next big wave of Internet success stories.

Now is exactly the time to invest in these companies, the self-styled contrarian said during a keynote speech at the conference sponsored by Red Herring magazine at Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

President of AOL Studios, Dulles, Va., the world's largest new media content originator, Leonsis is himself an entrepreneur and venture investor who settled a few scores while regaling an audience of more than 500 attending the Feb. 24-25 event.

In the middle of an hour-long, on-stage discussion with Jason Pontin, editor of Red Herring, Leonsis paused to read a list of the venture funds and investors who backed his company, Redgate Communications, for a $40 million-plus profit when Leonsis sold it in 1994 to AOL.

After profusely thanking those present, who stood during the recognition, Leonsis, with even greater ceremony, read the longer list of funds that had turned him down. He said he'd been waiting 20 years for the chance.

Among other vignettes, Leonsis revealed AOL CEO Steve Case's management secrets: "Always make sure your revenues exceed expenses," he quoted Case advising him; and "whenever you're faced with a strategic conundrum, look to see what Prodigy and CompuServe have done, and do the opposite."

Defending AOL's performance after a verbal jab from Pontin, Leonsis parried that AOL had taught Wall Street its commonly used online metrics: number of subscribers and subscriber turnover, known as the churn rate.

While AOL has reduced the churn and added another 1.25 million customers in the recent quarter, Leonsis said the now more sophisticated industry needs expanded metrics. Other factors should include AOL's brand dominance; high household penetration; huge cash flow; soaring revenue streams from licensing, transactional services and advertising; and its ANS networks subsidiary, which Leonsis called bigger than Fairfax, Va.-based UUNet Technologies Inc. but with no relative boost assigned to the balance sheet by Wall Street.

Leonsis blew away Pontin's criticism when he forced the former staffer of The Economist magazine to admit he had never actually logged on to AOL, then further skewered the Englishman with an anecdote that delighted the house: His Greek father, Leonsis recounted, warned him when dealing with the English to always deduct 15 points from their presumed IQ because Brits sound smarter than they are; and when dealing with Southerners, add 15 points.

Venture Markets South was launched as an extension of the California-based Red Herring's successful financial conference formula. After 1996 data ranked the South, which includes the Netplex, ahead of the Northeast and second only to Silicon Valley as a magnet for capital, the California deal book came calling.

A list of presenting companies hyperlinked to their respective World Wide Web sites can be accessed at www.herring.com/events.


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