Our first offices for the DragonSearch online marketing team were located in a facility which had been an IBM plant for main frames.  Of course, the main frames are long gone, and there is an immense amount of cold-war-era office space left vacant.  If you are familiar with the Northeast – areas like the Mohawk Valley, or the old manufacturing towns, you’d be accustomed to seeing defunct industries and vacant brick factories. The history of business in America is one of constant change. Industries come and go, along with factories, either leaving populations of workers or being the impetus behind new migrations.

The remnants of these histories are all around us in the Northeast, and particularly in New York City.  The RCA Building, renamed the GE Building, forms the center of Rockefeller Center. While not the original structures used by those entrepreneurs, buildings with both Edison’s and Westinghouse’s names are still to be found. If you’re willing to drive out to Long Island, you can visit Tesla’s old lab, even if it no longer sports the tower he constructed to connect electric signals across continents.

Fortunes Made

In the top ten Fortune 500 companies of 2010, two companies were formed in recent history: Wal-Mart Stores (1962) and Hewlett-Packard (1947). Five of the companies were formed in the Gilded Age – the late 1800’s. General Electric was formed by a merger between Thomas Edison’s Edison General Electric and the Thomas-Houston Company. JP Morgan, instrumental in that merger, is also represented in the top 10 with JP Morgan Chase & Co.  Exxon Mobil and Chevron were both their origins in the breakup of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, while Henry Ford, one-time engineer with Edison, is represented by Ford Motor. AT&T in the seventh spot had its birth in Alexander Graham Bell’s business.

In the online marketing industry, we are so focused on the world of Google that it is absolutely befuddling to learn that the big G isn’t even in the top 100.  In fact, Google is at the 102nd spot, comfortably nestled between Staples (101) and Macy’s (103)!

But if you click a few extra tabs and buttons, and get to the view that shows companies by profits, you’ll learn that Google is in fact at the 19th position, and is, in fact, the leading media company.  Perhaps “media” isn’t the right word – but then, if not, what is?

From Communications, to Energy, to Entertainment

Edison’s fortunes started with his inventions improving telegraph systems, moved into the incandescent light bulb, improvements to the telephone, and had enormous outcomes for both recorded music and movies. At one point, Edison had a movie production company housed right out of Menlo Park.  Edison’s main company became GE, which, by the way, formed RCA and NBC.  Edison’s great competitor, George Westinghouse, lived to see his company, Westinghouse Electric, taken over by investors.  That company eventually acquired CBS which had been created by the Columbia Phonograph Company, another Edison competitor.  In other words, the major providers of electricity became the providers of broadcast entertainment.

It seems as though the great American companies that gained power in the post civil war years went on to become the great controllers and creators of mass media but somehow have stopped short in moving into the internet.

When it comes to the world of computing, Microsoft is second only to Exxon Mobil in profitability. IBM, which does make software, makes the majority of its profits from services.  No, after Google, the next most profitable contender in media is Liberty Media – one of those companies that most people haven’t even heard of.  They control such web properties as bodybuilding.com, Evite, Tree.com, and others. Considering the bankroll behind this company, I’ve got a feeling they might be a contender for the greatest internet clout after Google.

Companies and the Internet Age

What all of this suggests to me is that the really large companies haven’t jumped into the internet fray – or they just haven’t found their place yet. And if ingenuity is the only thing that has kept them out so far, they’ve got to be close to the gates.  Time Warner, in the consolidation with AOL should have been a greater contender. And perhaps the big players will yet come from the entertainment industry.  But so far, they’ve been slow to make a great impact.

I’m feeling that our industry is still nascent. We’re not seeing the level of content creation that we could be, which means that no one has really gained control over major areas.  Liberty Media might just be on to something, with its niche content properties.  Are the big players going to get into the game, or do the smaller companies really have a chance after all to be modern Edisons and Westinghouses?