Michael Arrington got the headlines last year when AOL snapped up his five-year-old Silicon Valley super-blog TechCrunch for a reported $40-$50 million. But the business brains behind the operation was Heather Harde, a News Corp. veteran whose decision almost four years ago to leave Rupert Murdoch’s lofty heights and become the CEO of a handful of pixel-stained wretches–who, to top it off, were still operating out of their boss’s living room–raised eyebrows in media and business circles.
But what looked risky to others seemed like a natural next step to Harde. During her decade at News Corp., she had learned many of the skills and discipline needed to shepherd a scrappy group of bloggers into a media powerhouse. “One of the things the company took pride in was thinking big,” she says. “During the annual review process, you were asked to think about the future of your business, how you would stay in the number one spot. They encouraged executives to be aggressive in their growth thinking. And they never came back and said an idea was too big or too crazy.”
And then there was the canary in the coal mine. “When I was in M&A at Fox Interactive, the companies that were coming to pitch us–the opening slide of their deck was always ‘as reported on TechCrunch,'” Harde says. “I had an appreciation of how difficult it was to create a brand in media. TechCrunch had become a brand. It now needed to scale into a media property.”
In retrospect, of course, it seems like a savvy move. But getting the company to a place where AOL CEO Tim Armstrong was willing not only to lay down some serious bank for the company–but also to fly out to TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference in San Francisco to announce the acquisition–certainly wasn’t easy, especially given that the venture was entirely self-funded. “I got really great financial discipline at News Corp., in terms of how to generate revenue and how to really lean on costs,” Harde says. At TechCrunch, that meant everything from building an in-house ad-sales team so the company could represent itself to advertisers instead of relying on third parties, to developing conferences and events, and creating a research arm in the form of CrunchBase. And they also kept a close eye on expenses, including, Harde recalls with a healthy dose of humor, saving on rent by sticking it out in Arrington’s living room for what she now says was probably “far too long.” Today, Harde’s job, as vice president of TechCrunch under the AOL umbrella, remains much the same, though she has a far larger stack of resources to draw upon. And she’s excited by the growing number of influence and proliferation of women leaders in media and technology. Speaking of her new AOL colleague by way of the recent acquisition of the Huffington Post, Harde says, “Ariana Huffington, as the founder of a business with a $315 million exit, is very inspiring to me.”