AOL Is Still the Weirdest Successful Tech Company in America

... and a perfect lesson in why we shouldn't confuse great stocks for great companies

If you equate great stocks with great companies, then you probably consider AOL one of the great tech companies of the last two years. Named the hottest tech stock of 2012, AOL has in the last year outperformed Google, Microsoft, and (of course) Apple, as you can see in the chart below ... [AOL is blue; Google in green; Microsoft in yellow; Apple in red]

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 10.49.18 AM.png

But as AOL's earnings today show, the company remains the most confounding ostensibly "successful" tech firm of our time.

You probably know AOL as a conglomeration of websites that presumably make money by selling advertising next to their articles. But in fact, AOL as a media company is constant money-loser. It lost $17 million advertising on its fleet of sites -- AOL.com, Huffington Post, Moviefone -- in the first quarter of 2012 and another $5 million in the first three months of this year.

So, as a business proposition, AOL is a media company -- an ad company -- with diminishing losses. But as a profit-making business, AOL isn't a media company, or an advertising company, at all. It's a vestigial subscriptions business gleaning cash from people who haven't graduated from the era of pshhhkkkrrrrkakingkakingkakingtshchch*ding*ding*ding".

Earnings filed under the "membership," which includes $168 million in subscriptions plus revenue associated with services like AIM, accounts for more than 100 percent of the company's profit, just as it has for years. As Peter Kafka notes, this is both mind-boggling and not even close to being news.

The financial press often equates short-term stock performance with the quality of a company and its leadership. Facebook was considered a pretty sensational invention led by a tech visionary, until it went public and its stock sank and the argument over its value could be reduced to a stock price figure and its quarterly decline. AOL is perhaps the opposite: a company treated with derision that has, in the past 18 months, outperformed most of its peers. It's done so by limiting losses in a terribly unattractive business (massive digital advertising paired with expensive original journalism) while holding on to inevitable and demographically determined losses in online subscriptions, its only money-making sector.

Great company? I guess. If you own stock.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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