AOL CEO Tim Armstrong and actor-entrepreneur Sarah Jessica Parker—who collaborated on city.ballet, a documentary series about dance that airs on AOL—are experts at navigating the contemporary media landscape, thinking boldly, and engaging their fans and customers. Though their backgrounds differ significantly, both have extensive thoughts on how to foster creativity in business, which they shared with Fast Company’s Robert Safian at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in November.
You both have been involved in a lot of evolutions. Tim started at Google and then went to AOL, which was sold to Verizon, which is now buying Yahoo. Sarah Jessica, you are a performer and a producer and you’re in other businesses: fragrances, a book imprint, footwear. Do you think of yourselves as risk takers? Is risk a good thing?
Tim Armstrong: I started in investment banking and quit to start a newspaper. I remember my boss at the bank saying, "What are you doing?" By taking risks earlier in your career, you get used to taking them. You can judge a risk versus an opportunity, and I think that is a skill set. When I left [Google for] AOL, people were scratching their heads. There was an article that said, "Has Tim Armstrong Lost His Mind?" I had to sit in a room with [Google leaders] Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, and they basically pounded me for two hours about how stupid it was for me to leave. At the end I said, "I’m going to leave, guys, I’m sorry. I really love you, but I want to go do this." In my gut I knew it was the right decision.
Sarah Jessica Parker: There are times in your life when you’re not in a position to take a risk, and that is a very hard decision to make too—if you don’t have the financial means to support that risk. I don’t want to diminish that: Not everybody gets to take risks. But it’s important to be curious. There are ways of pursuing [what you love while] doing what all of us did, which was take jobs you don’t like. It’s a badge of honor to have survived [jobs] that weren’t inspiring or challenging, or to have worked with people who you didn’t think that highly of, because you had to subsidize the dream.
A lot of people dream of being a performer like you. Yet you are spending a lot of time and energy building other businesses. Why is being an entrepreneur appealing?
SJP: Because I love to learn and work with people and develop ideas. I love business. I didn’t know it. I was a terrible math student. I tested on my standardized tests like I had never been exposed to the inside of a schoolroom in my entire life. It was humiliating. It was such a heartbreak for my mother, who was an educator. Because [writer and producer] Darren Star said I could be a producer on Sex and the City, I discovered that business is complex—there are ledgers and profits and margins and all of this stuff, and that’s important—but it’s the people who make the business: the customer, your partners. You’ll get the numbers figured out. So it’s not that surprising that an actor, who likes to connect with people, would like to have other areas in their life where they can connect with people and learn from them.
TA: The reality is that the numbers only come through creativity. Like, your job as a creative is basically to make products that everybody wants and nobody needs. And I think that is [a focus of] our creative business.
The two of you worked together on city.ballet. Sarah Jessica, you could have gone with any partner. Why AOL?
SJP: They were excited by the story. We didn’t have to sell, sell, sell. And they wanted to put the money behind it in a big way.
Tim, is AOL going to compete with HBO? Do you think of yourselves as competing with HBO?
TA: We are doing a lot of deals now to get distribution power, so we have lots of connectivity and consumers overall. That is the piping. The second piece is what you put in the pipes. Our dream is that someone like Sarah Jessica comes to us with an opportunity, we enable that opportunity, put it across our distribution, and put it across everybody else’s distribution—so when creators in the future decide who they want to work with, they come to [us] because we care as much about their content as they do.
I understand that at a company meeting not that long ago, you literally got down on your hands and knees and begged your product team to open up more products to consumers.
TA: Every consumer has 8,760 hours on planet Earth every year. Fewer of those hours [are being filled by content from media] companies like mine. We want to be open to people coming to us and giving us ideas and programs that differentiate our content and experience. We want to create platforms so that when you’re [viewing] that content, [you can] add to it, share it, mix it. We will have a failing business in 2020 if we don’t open experiences with a consumer. I did get down on my hands and knees. I begged. If someone’s got a better idea than begging, I don’t know.
SJP: The best part about being a new company or promoting [the HBO show] Divorce is this opportunity to connect with the consumer. There are so many options now. How do you distinguish yourself? Without the consumer, I have no shoe company, no show. They are as important in the creative process as any of us. You have to keep listening to them, communicating with them, spending an hour and a half every night or every other night just answering comments. Even when it’s painful, you respect them, you respond. [With television now], there is this whole system of supporting a show every week. I find a way to talk about an upcoming episode in a way that I feel comfortable with that isn’t pushy, that doesn’t feel like I’m trading on our relationship. I try to answer questions after every episode and check in with the #DivorceHBO Instagram.
Is that to try to talk people into making the show appointment TV the same way that Sex and the City was?
SJP: I don’t think you can talk people into anything anymore. There are too many options. It is up to you to share the story, to be in communication. It’s the same with the shoes. There are only two or three of us at the shoe company, and that’s how you build a brand, right? I mean, I don’t know how else to do it.
TA: We recently ripped down all of our executive offices and invited live consumers in every day. So our office is really loud now, because there are consumers in the office, literally sitting right next to where we sit. You have a deeper relationship with those people when you behave that way.
There is an emphasis on data in the marketplace today. How do you balance data with your instinct about a project?
SJP: It gives people confidence and courage. But I don’t know that it’s relevant.
TA: Data can put you in the cul-de-sac region really quickly if you’re not careful. You need to have data as an enablement tool, but most great ideas didn’t start with somebody looking at a research report and saying, "Here’s a piece of data I see."
SJP: Meanwhile, in the shoe category you learn a lot from SKUs, like what sold and what didn’t, and that’s very important data. You learn about the customer and retail in Georgia versus La Jolla.
Does either of you have a personal mission statement?
SJP: To support curiosity, to encourage it in others, and to let it be my guide.
TA: Having a personal mission statement—I highly suggest it. It’s been helpful. I have a written one in my closet: "Be a great father, be a great husband, be a great friend." And then [I want] to find the world’s most talented people and make sure the whole world sees them. Talented people aren’t always the easiest, but talent really matters.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2017 issue of Fast Company magazine.