These days, Tim Armstrong may be best known for running one of the world’s leading digital media businesses. But, two decades ago, when online media were just getting going, Armstrong made his first business foray by launching a print media business.

It didn’t work out so well. In fact, the newspaper he launched with a friend, “Beginnings of Boston,” targeted at 20-year-olds in Boston, hit the rocks. Armstrong tells Beet.TV that remains his biggest career setback – but one he learned the best business lessons from.

“At one point, since we really didn’t know what we were doing, and we were starting from scratch, I was 23 years old hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,” Armstrong tells Beet.TV in this video interview. “I financed it all myself. I sold my car, my mountain bike, my surfboard, and used all my credit cards, and taught myself how to program.

“The business almost went out of business. What seemed like a crushing amount of debt and failure made me make a decision about whether or not you give up or keep going.”

In the crucible of that crisis, Armstrong realized the enduring value of hard work.

“I remember reading the Boston Globe one morning at the depth of the lowest point,” he adds. There was an article about how handicapped people overcome adversity. There was a quote I used to carry around in my wallet for years that said, basically, the world doesn’t owe you anything, you have to get up every single day and continue and prove yourself and grow.

“It just hit me right between the eyes. I got up that morning and said, ‘Regardless of what happens, I’m always going to keep pushing forward’. It was a great lesson for me.”

Amid the turmoil of his early newspaper foray, Armstrong met with the developers of one of the first web browsers and quickly put all his efforts in to digital media.

Armstrong has spent six years at the helm of an AOL that has been spun out of Time Warner and, after flirting with Yahoo, has been sold to Verizon. That followed positions for Armstrong including running Google’s Americas business, directing sales at ABC/ESPN Internet Ventures and advising Greycroft Partners.

Throughout that time at the company, he has continued applying and spreading the lesson learned from that Globe article. “It’s been a real amazing thing to watch thousands of people at this company get up every morning and improve a little bit every day,” Armstrong says.

Now AOL has itself acquired mobile ad network Millennial Media, the latest in a series of deals designed to place it at the forefront of the fast-changing online advertising industry.

Armstrong’s motivation remains clear, however. “I’ve had one simple philosophy,” he tells Beet.TV. “I want to be really honest with myself about mistakes I’ve made.

“I have a personal mission statement I use in my life, which is about making as many people as I possibly can successful. That drives me.”

This interview is from Beet.TV’s “Media Revolutionaries”, a 50-part series of interviews with key innovators and leaders in the media, technology and advertising industries,sponsored by Xaxis and AOL.  Xaxis is a unit of WPP. Please find more clips from the series here.

Armstrong was interviewed for Beet.TV by David J. Moore, Chairman of Xaxis and President of WPP Digital.  The interview took place at the AOL headquarters in New York. 

The Media Revolutionaries, presented by Xaxis and AOLTagged , ,