Prodigy Communications rises high and falls low

Consider the case of Prodigy Communications Corporation. Prodigy was founded in 1984 as a joint venture among IBM, Sears, and CBS to offer “videotex” services, such as news, advertisements, shopping, and communication, from a PC. With the initial low penetration rates of PCs and modems in homes, however, it was not until 1989 that Prodigy services were first marketed. By that time many of the services we know today were already available, including email and, in 1994, access to the World Wide Web by pioneering sales of “dial-up” connections to the net. Indeed, when Prodigy first went online, it was praised as the network of the future.

At its height in 1994, Prodigy had 2 million subscribers and innovative services. Yet this first mover that could fairly be credited with creating primary demand for online services fell to a distant third behind AOL and CompuServe just two years later. Why did the front-running Prodigy fall from grace? The company made a series of operational and organizational mistakes from which they could not recover. For example, when customer usage of email accelerated in 1993 the company imposed a 25 cents charge for each email above the 30-email limit each month. Customer reaction was swift – complaints surfaced on Prodigy bulletin boards and 18,000 customers joined the “Cooperative Defense Committee” to protest the user fees. Prodigy responded by abruptly closing some customer accounts without explanation or prior notification. The company did not do much better in managing customer expectations of online chat rooms, banning discussions of any sex-related topic, including AIDS.

With Windows becoming the standard operating system for PCs, Prodigy focused on developing their own non-Windows compatible proprietary interface. Prodigy also suffered from the bureaucratic and political headaches of operating under two large, established corporate parents (CBS had dropped out in 1986), who were often in disagreement on strategy. This became particularly evident after AOL began their “free trial” marketing campaign that saw them send millions of diskettes to potential customers. Prodigy’s response was hampered by the continuing efforts of IBM and Sears to extricate themselves from the business, one in which they had invested some $1.2 billion by the time they sold the company to a group of investors in 1996. Internally, conflict between senior executives with large-company perspectives and younger employees driven by technology and entrepreneurship created havoc.

In the end a company that was first to see, and capitalize on, the huge opportunity that became the Internet changed hands and wound up being part of the AT&T empire. As of now, there is still a small group of former Prodigy employees in AT&T.

Source: Journal of Business Strategy, July/August, 2001.

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