Steve Case, Chairman & CEO of Revolution
Steve Case: AOL and Everything After
If Bill Gates offered you $100 million dollars to buy your business, what would you do? Just ask Steve Case: turn him down and focus, knowing you’re on to a good thing.
If you remember the old dial-up internet in the closing years of the twentieth century, you’ll be familiar with the zips and pings and fuzz coming through your speakers as your computer connected to the world wide web. And chances are, you connected through AOL.
“I knew that someday, somehow, this thing called the internet would become mainstream,” says Steve Case, former CEO of AOL and one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs. It’s an easy claim to make in retrospect, sure, but Case’s actions confirm his conviction. The internet? He called it. The fact that you’re reading this on a device is largely due to Case’s legacy.
Steve Case is tall, heavyset with a square jaw and silvery combed hair. He looks like the sort of man you’d see pictured next to a dictionary definition of a congressman or astronaut. The fifty-seven-year-old’s voice is calm, and he strikes you as someone who would be unflappable in a startup’s boiler-room environment.
To say AOL was a household name does the brand a disservice. In the 90s, it became one of the most recognisable brands on the planet. AOL was a globe-spanning mega-company, and an intrinsic part of the internet in the web’s early days. Everyone knew AOL, and everyone used AOL. Yet it was not always the case.
“I started AOL in 1985 with a few friends,” Case says. Back then, amongst all the hairspray, big glasses, and stone wash denim, AOL was known by its former moniker, Quantum Computer Services (1985–91). An online services company, co-founded by Jim Kimsey and Marc Serriff, it was built around the remnants of games company Control Video, which had specialised in downloadable games for the Atari 2600.
Unlike other entrepreneurs of the time like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Steve Case’s background was not in technology. He was a young – and then unknown – marketing executive with a background in political science, whose strengths lay not in coding but in marketing and strategy. Yet these skills proved invaluable as he became adept at second-guessing and out-manoeuvring his competition.
To rivals, AOL was beneath their consideration. It was too small to be threatening. When AOL sought venture capital – of which they would only secure a paltry $1 million – one banker responded by saying: “it’s a dog. You should take it out back and shoot it.”
Case was in his late twenties at the time. “We had a small team, a couple dozen people.” In those days, they worked long hours in what Case describes as a seven-days-a-week obsession. “It would always help imagining what the company would look like a year down the road, and try to position ourselves for that imminent future.” Playing catch-up was not in Case’s playbook.
The internet was in its embryonic phase and helping people get online was not a service people understood or wanted. “Back when we started, only 3% of people were online. And then only for an hour a week.” It was something for niche hobbyists, Case says. “But I believed it would one day be for the mass, mainstream market and would change how people got information.”
It was a decade before AOL really began to gain traction. “It seems like we [AOL] sprung on to the scene in the mid 1990s. But really we’d been at it for more than a decade before we broke through. We were a ten-year-in-the-making overnight sensation.” He laughs. “Sometimes revolutions happen in evolutionary ways.”
Over the space of a decade, the sheer rate of growth at AOL is hard to imagine. “As it grew we started going from dozens of people to hundreds of people to thousands to tens of thousands. So every year I’d have to rethink my role. You need to recognize that entrepreneurship is a team sport; it’s not just about the CEO or the founder. It’s about a broader mix of people.”
In 1992, AOL was the first internet company to go public. With that came the responsibility of educating the markets as to what the internet was and why it was worthy of their investment. “It was initially a challenge to get people to believe.” Then the levee broke, so to speak, and everyone wanted a piece of AOL.
When Bill Gates comes knocking, it means you’re doing something right. In 1993, Bill Gates put $100-200 million dollars on the table. The deal? Microsoft would acquire AOL. But no matter how sweet the offer, Case refused to sell, setting his competitor on edge. “I can buy 20 per cent of you or I can buy all of you, or I can go into this business myself and bury you,” Bill Gates famously said. Case and his co-founders repeatedly turned down Gates’ offers, which led the Microsoft founder to attempt to bury AOL, albeit unsuccessfully.
Within the ten years from 1991 to 2001, AOL’s growth continued to skyrocket with unimaginable speed and velocity. From being valued in the hundreds of millions around the time Gates wanted to buy, AOL market valuation grew to the tens of billions to the hundreds of billions.
As reported in the Financial Times, by 1999, AOL’s share price increased more than 35,000% since it was made public in 1992. For the sake of comparison, Microsoft’s share price increased 11,000% over a similar time period.
So what was it about AOL that made it so attractive to users and investors? Simplicity, Case believes, coupled with affordability. “With AOL, we always tried to make these services useful, fun and affordable. We always had a mass-market, mainstream focus. That guided our thinking. Our competitors, their services were complicated to use and expensive.”
For a long time, AOL was the biggest fish in the dot-com pond, with a stratospheric stock market valuation. Its growth culminated in AOL’s acquisition of Time Warner in 2000, which, to the tune of $164 billion dollars, was the largest ever in U.S. history. At its peak following the merger, AOL’s market value was equivalent to the gross national product of a medium-sized European nation.
Two months later, the dot-com bubble burst. While the economy slumped into recession, AOL experienced a string of misfortunes like declining subscriber base, a decline in dial-up internet and an increase take up of broadband. AOL’s market value collapsed from $226 billion dollars to around $20 billion. After AOL’s rocky merger was undone five years later, AOL’s status had been irrevocably diminished. Since then, AOL has become something of a fallen giant in internet history, joining the ranks of Yahoo!.
On the infamous Time Warner merger, which has since been touted as calamitous, Case says: “it gave us a diversified mix of businesses and a path to broadband. For Time Warner, they needed a path to the internet. But what we learned from that was vision without execution is hallucination. The execution was flawed. We didn’t have the right people focused on the right priorities. It could have been a transformative merger, but ended up struggling and had to be unwound. The key lesson is that it all comes down to execution. And execution is about people regardless of the size of the company.”
In October 2005, Steve Case resigned from the Time-Warner board of directors. More recently in 2015, telecom giant Verizon bought AOL for $4.4 billion, focusing on the mobile and video content markets.
It was arguably Case’s vision for AOL that led to its colossal success. Steve Case is now putting his visionary skills to use as chief executive of the investment firm Revolution, which has financed over 40 early-stage and later-stage startups, the majority of which are based outside Silicon Valley. Case assures us this was a deliberate move, as he imagines the future of tech to be increasingly based outside of its current northern Californian bubble. And regarding the types of startups they invest in, it’s not just internet and tech. “We’ve invested across sectors,” he says. “Health, education, transportation, and food.” Startups they’ve backed include Zipcar, RunKeeper, Living Social. And this is coming from a man who doesn’t need the income. You get the impression Case just enjoys watching technology unfold.
The title of his new bestseller, The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future, couldn’t be more apt, given that Case is a man who made a stratospheric gamble on his own company based on how he believed technology would evolve. In his book, Case argues the first wave of the internet saw companies enable consumers to connect. In the second wave, companies like Google and Facebook built upon that foundation. The third wave, Case believes, will be a period when entrepreneurs will revolutionise sectors like education, energy, food, health, and transportation.
Back in 1980, Case stumbled upon a book called The Third Wave, by noted futurist Alvin Toffler, which created a stir in tech circles. Toffler’s book outlined the societal transition from being based on agriculture, to industrial technology, to information technology. The book made controversial claims that have since proven accurate. For example, he predicted the rise of the internet and the rampant consumerism that goes along with an excess of choice. Case read the book in 1980, on graduating from a degree in political science. In naming his own book The Third Wave, Case is acknowledging Toffler’s influence and in a way assumes the late futurists’ mantle. He describes his new work as a road map or playbook to the role of future tech in the same way Toffler’s was in the 80s. “I hope people will read my book and find similar inspiration to help navigate that future,” he says.
You don’t need to start the next AOL or Facebook or Google to change the world. Startups can change the world and that can come in many different forms, Case argues. “And I celebrate any entrepreneur trying to do anything.” Whether you’ve started a company or are about to, for Steve Case it’s important to maintain a hungry mind. “It starts with curiosity,” he says. “Ideas come when you see patterns emerge that suggest opportunities. But everything starts with curiosity. An interest in what’s going to happen next.” And the good news is, if you’re not in Silicon Valley, you’re no longer at a disadvantage. The entrepreneurial buzz that was previously restricted to the Mecca of everything tech has now spread to dozens of other cities around the United States and the world. “As innovation and entrepreneurship are becoming more regionalised and more globalised, the tech startups of the future can be anywhere.”
TACKLE BIGGER PROBLEMS, TACKLE BIGGER CHALLENGES
Looking to get ahead in the Third Wave? Steve Case advises young entrepreneurs.
- Tackle bigger problems and challenges. Instead of wondering how to get rich as an entrepreneur, try to solve the problems we’re facing. How can we solve the health of our communities? How can we improve education? Or the food system so everyone eats healthier? It’s the big problems that offer the biggest opportunities for the entrepreneur. Taking on hard challenges will take more time, but they’re worth it. So pick a battle worth fighting; pick a mountain worth climbing.
- Have a long term, ‘change the world’ mindset. That means building things to last. Some entrepreneurs want to build a company to flip it; to create an app or service, build it up, then sell it. That’s fine, but my own preference is to take a longer term view and actually make a difference.
- Remember that revolutions happen in evolutionary ways. No amount of success happens overnight. Perseverance is crucial. You want to build the next multi-billion-dollar company, you need to be willing to put in a decade of work before you see it take off.
- Why focusing on community is the best move a startup can make
- How to build for the future instead of building for what’s happening today
- What it means to develop curiosity and why you need it to be a successful entrepreneur
- Exclusive insight into the early days of AOL and how they built a global brand
- How Steve judges a startup’s disruptive potential when looking to invest
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Steve Case
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the “Foundr Podcast.” My name is Nathan Chan coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia, hometown Melbourne. And you guys are in for an absolute treat from today’s guest. His name is Steve Case, and he founded a company, a little company, called AOL, which was actually the first tech company to go public. And you know, it’s a multi-billion dollar company. They even acquired Time Warner, a massive, massive conglomerate company. And we get to hear from the founder and how it all started, how he built this rapid-growing startup. How he, himself, actually became a billionaire and his secrets to success. So you guys are in for an absolute treat. Steve Case, super knowledgeable founder. He has a lot of experience and has a ton of proof to back it up, what can I say?
So if you guys are enjoying these episodes, please do spread the word. Tell your friends. Please do leave us a five-star review. It helps more than you can imagine. And if you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to check out the magazine. It’s, you know, where our fruits of our labor really go. So guys, that’s it from me. I hope you enjoy this episode. Now let’s jump into the show.
Thank you so much for taking the time today to speak with me, Steve. The first question that I ask everyone that comes on that we speak to is how did you get your job?
Steve: Well, it was a little bit circuitous. I graduated from college in 1980. I read a book actually called “The Third Wave” by Alvin Toffler and was intrigued with what he was talking about almost four decades ago. But there were no internet companies to go to then, so I ended up working for a couple large companies in the United States, Procter & Gamble, and then PepsiCo, and then finally moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 1983 to join a little startup. And that failed, but two of the people that I met and I started AOL now in 1985, so 31 years ago. So it was a little bit circuitous; I kind of knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t quite know how to get there. And it took a few moves before I finally kind of landed in a place where I could play a role in trying to make the internet a part of our daily life.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. Amazing. And did you imagine that when you started AOL, it would have got to where it is today?
Steve: No, I imagined that what we now think of as the internet would someday be pervasive and have a significant impact on people’s lives and society, I always believed that. But I didn’t think AOL itself would necessarily be a success. I was hoping it would be, but you know, there were a lot of big companies when we were launching. We only were able to raise $1 million of venture capital, and we had some competitors like IBM and Sears that committed $1 billion to a venture called Prodigy in the 1980s, so that was pretty formidable. AT&T was doing things, Microsoft was talking about doing things, and newspapers and banks like Knight Ridder and Citigroup were talking about doing things or doing things.
So it was a big, big…it seemed like a big opportunity, but there was also a lot of competition. So I always believed that somehow, some way, the internet would become part of everyday life. But it was not as obvious what role AOL, specifically, would play. And again, it’s hard to go back 30-plus years. But when we started AOL in the United States, only 3% of people were online, and those 3% were only online one hour a week. So it really was kind of early days in terms of…it was still a very niche-y, obvious kind of market.
So I believed that someday, it would be a mass market, someday, it would be a mainstream market. Someday, it would change how people got information and communicated and bought products and so forth. But I was less clear that our little AOL company would be one of the companies that really did help, you know, get the world online.
Nathan: I see. And I’m curious, you know, with the success you’ve had as an entrepreneur, what makes you effective? Like, what sets you apart from others? I’m really curious. Because, you know, you’ve achieved a lot of success.
Steve: I think the word “curious” is probably part of it, what you used. I think I’ve always been curious about what’s happening and paying attention to what’s happening around the periphery, and trying to kind of lean in to the future and focus on what’s happening next versus what’s happened already, and try to look at, you know, meet a lot of people and get exposed to a lot of different ideas and see some patterns emerge that, you know, suggest sort of opportunities.
But I think it starts with curiosity and just an interest in what’s gonna happen next. That’s part of the reason I, you know, finally decided to write a book after 57 years, which is, yeah, I concluded that this third wave of the internet was gonna be different in a lot of different respects, and could learn from some of the lessons of the past. But it was mostly a book that I could write that was more about the future. And so, that was what made it interesting to me.
So I’ve always been interested in “What’s gonna happen next?” And that curiosity and just desire to kind of be part of, you know, unleashing revolutions across a lot of different sectors that can hopefully improve a lot of people’s lives. And you know, that’s just always been what’s interesting to me.
Nathan: I see. And you know, back in the early days of starting AOL and growing it…like I know at one point in time, Bill Gates wanted to acquire you guys. I’m just really curious, what kind of hours did you work back in those early days? Can you give people an insight to what it takes to, you know, take a company public and achieve what you’ve achieved?
Steve: It was hard work. And you know, we did work hard, particularly in those early days. In the mid to late 1980s, I was in my late 20s. You know, we had a small team, a couple dozen people, and you know, we really were kind of all-in. So it was sort of a…kind of a seven day a week kind of obsession. And as it grew, we started going from dozens of people, to hundreds of people, to thousands of people, to eventually tens of thousands of people. At every stage, it created different opportunities, but also different challenges. Every year or so, I’d have to kind of rethink my role and reposition my role. And certainly when we went public, that changed things. We went public in 1992; it was the first internet company to go public. So we had to educate the markets about what the internet was and why they should be investing in the internet.
But that was a…you know, it was a challenge to get people to believe, and initial interest in the company was pretty modest. But over time, you know, people got it and it really started to grow more rapidly. And that’s where, you know, some of the interest among potential acquirers…you mentioned Bill Gates. There were others as well that were interested in acquiring the company.
So it was a circuitous, you know, adventure. It wasn’t a straight line. There were a number of times where there really were kind of near-death experiences where we thought we weren’t gonna survive. But thankfully, we kind of stuck with it and we persevered, and figured out some new angle, some new direction, some new twist. And eventually, we were able to kind of continue to move forward.
Nathan: I see. I’m really curious around, you know, how you mentioned the growth of the company and, you know, how you eventually got to 10,000-plus staff. But for a lot of our audience in the early days, their team would be growing from just a…you know, solo…either solo or in an early-stage startup team, to, you know, getting into the 5-plus, 10-plus, 20-plus, 30-plus. What are some key things that startups can take away from your lessons on scale and just leadership and structure on managing people? Because that’s a really critical part when you’re growing your company to not stuff that up, right?
Steve: No, it’s very hard, and usually, it’s, you know, kind of two steps forward, one step back. I don’t think anybody gets it perfectly right. You just kind of have to keep adjusting and trying to kind of understand what the next challenge…I think there was in those early days that tried to imagine how things might look down the road, even a year down the road, and try to position now for that future that was, you know, imminent and not just always be kind of behind the 8-ball trying to play catch up.
So particularly as we were starting to, you know, accelerate our growth, it was kind of trying to understand what kind of organizational structure we might need in a year or two and put that in place before we need it instead of after we need it. And recognize that entrepreneurship obviously is a team sport. So it’s not just about the CEO or the founder or the founders, it’s a broader mix of people, and you’ve got to strike the right balance between having a team that does work well together while also having disparate and diverse perspectives. And to the extent you just focus on people that you like to work with, chances are, that’s not gonna give you the different perspectives that you need. At the same time on the other side, if you just focus on different skill sets and don’t focus on how to mold that together as a team, that’s gonna be a problem as well.
So it’s a tricky balance in terms of getting, you know, getting in front of the curve in terms of putting the team in place to manage where you’re going, not just where you are, and certainly not where you’d been. And also balance the benefits of a team that culturally is aligned while also infusing your team with some, you know, unique and diverse perspectives.
Nathan: I see. Let’s talk about your new book, “The Third Wave.” What can people expect from reading it?
Steve: I think it’s a mix of things. It’s my kind of view where things are going from a technology standpoint, particularly an internet standpoint, and how that’s gonna change society, and also kind of disrupt some big industries. So there’s that aspect to it. But I also think…I’ve tried to provide a little bit of a road map, a little bit of a playbook for entrepreneurs who want to be part of that third wave, and give them a framework to think about it.
I mentioned…when I was coming out of college in 1980, I read a book also called “The Third Wave” by a futurist, Alvin Toffler. And that really inspired me to be on the path I’ve been on for the last four decades, and gave me a sense of where things were going and let me to want to be part of making the internet part of everyday life.
And so, I’m hopeful that other people will…you know, might be reading my book and find a similar inspiration, and it’s kind of a similar kind of road map or playbook to help navigate that future. There’s three, you know, Ps in particular that I talk about it. I think they’re gonna be really important in the next 10, 15, 20 years. One is “Partnership,” the second is “Policy,” and the third is “Perseverance.” And those were three Ps that were very important in the early days of the internet, what I call the “first wave” of the internet. Just building the internet, building the on ramps to the internet that has been less important in the last 10, 15 years in the second wave, which has been building apps and services on top of the internet. But those three Ps are gonna become important again in the third wave.
I think in the case of partnership, I don’t think it’s gonna be just about the software, it’s not just about the app. It’s how do you integrate technology, integrate the internet in seamless ways? And it’s gonna require partnerships with organizations in those sectors. I don’t think you can go alone, you need to go together. I think policy will become more important, because of the amenity sectors, whether it be healthcare or food, or education, or transportation, or energy, or financial services are regulated, and they’re gonna continue to be regulated. So understanding that aspect is gonna be important.
And the final P is perseverance, which is…as I learned with AOL in that first wave, sometimes, revolutions happen in more evolutionary ways, and you’ve got to stick with it. You’ve got to persevere in it. If you really believe in your idea, you’ve got to keep fighting. And in our case, with AOL, we were kind of…for a lot of people, we kind of sprung on to the scene in the mid-1990s, but we’ve really been at it for more than a decade before we finally broke through. So I used to joke that we’re kind of a “ten year in the making overnight sensation.” I think that dynamic will be more common in this third wave.
Nathan: I see. That’s interesting. How should people know, in regards to perseverance, when to give up and when to keep going? Because that’s a tricky one, right?
Steve: It’s very tricky. I think it really comes down to your conviction about the idea itself, and sort of…everybody, when they start any kind of business, has a point of view, a perspective, a hypothesis. In my case, the hypothesis was that someday, somehow, this idea of the internet would become mainstream. And so, in those early years, when things were difficult, I never really lost hope in the idea of the internet. We just had to keep changing, you know, what we were doing, changing direction, pivoting…kind of figuring out new partnerships, figuring out new angles to, you know, continue to improve on what we were doing and continue to be relevant and get more attraction.
So I think it starts with that idea. And some ideas people think of are interesting ideas turn out not to be so interesting, and there’s just not a market acceptance of them. And in that case, it is better to, you know, call it a day and close up, and figure out something else to do. But if you still believe in the idea and you still believe there is a strategy to help take that idea and give it life and give it scale, and you have an understanding of sort of the competitive dynamics and you think it is possible to break through, then I think that argues for perseverance.
So it really…for me, it starts with the idea and continually questioning or requestioning whether that is something that does make sense. But if it does make sense, then, you know, keep your focus on your team, keep your focus on the right, you know, priorities. Keep your focus on, you know, the broader competitive landscape. Keep your focus on what partnerships might accelerate your growth.
I think that’s where it makes sense to stay the course. But keep tweaking what you’re doing. Keep adjusting what you’re doing to reflect what the market’s telling you.
Nathan: I see. So I’m curious, you know, you mentioned that back in the early days when you guys started AOL, you didn’t receive much venture funding compared to some of your competitors. What was your competitive advantage against some of these other companies?
Steve: It was a mix of things, but it started with a strategy that really was based on partnerships. So most of our competitors were launching…essentially what was then called online services, or interactive services, on their own with their own, you know, kind of brand names. And we decided…again, this is 30-plus years ago, to partner with the personal computer manufacturers, the PC manufacturers, and create custom online services for each of them; sort of private label, white label services. So we partnered with Commodore and Tandy and Apple and IBM to create custom services. That was part of it.
The second part of it was our focus was always on community. Those other…some of our competitors focused on content, others focused on commerce. We thought the killer app of the internet was people or community…what now we think of as sort of social media. And so, that was always a big focus, and we spent most of our time trying to innovate in these people functions, in these community functions.
And the third is we had a real keen eye towards trying to make these services really easy to use and useful and fun and affordable. We always had sort of a mainstream mass market kind of orientation to it. So that really guided a lot of our thinking. And most of the competitors at the time, the services were kind of complicated to use, they were expensive to use.
So it was a mix of the partnership strategy around private label services, a keen focus on the people functions, the community functions, the social functions, and also, really, a strong focus on ease of use. Really trying to make these services something that everybody could use, not just kind of computer hobbyists could use.
Nathan: I see. That’s interesting. And when it came to partnerships, what advice would you give to our audience around creating great partnerships, looking for potential partners? Any insights around that?
Steve: Well, obviously, it varies depending on the stage of the company and what kind of sector they’re targeting, the dynamics would be different. But in general, I think it starts with a hypothesis, a belief, a conviction, even a passion, that partnerships are critical to really enable you to take your idea and give it life and give it scale. They’re not optional, they’re essential. And if you have that mindset, you’re more likely to bring a kind of a fresh and sometimes flexible perspective to figure out not just what’s in your interest, but what’s also in your prospective partner’s interest, and figure out some way to kind of have a meeting of the minds.
And then recognize that it requires ongoing…you know, flexibility, just like any relationship. Like a marriage, there’s some give and take to it. So if you come at it thinking you can do it on your own, you’re probably not gonna be a great partner. If you come at it thinking about the partnership in too much of a rigid, inflexible way, that probably is not gonna really be a sustained partnership. You have to focus on what’s in their interest, not just in what’s in your interest, if you’re gonna have a success in establishing and also sustaining any kind of partnership.
Nathan: I see. And can you…are we able to talk about the merger with Time Warner?
Nathan: What happened there?
Steve: Really, two things happened. One was, for a whole host of reasons which I go through in the book…and strategically, it was the right thing for AOL to merge with Time Warner. It really provided us a more diversified mix of businesses and a path to broadband, which at the time, was critically important.
And it also is strategically important to Time Warner, to really have a stronger path to the digital future. A path to kind of be a more significant player in the internet. But the lesson I learned from that was that vision without execution is hallucination. The idea of the merger made sense to AOL, made sense to Time Warner. But the execution of that idea was flawed, and ultimately, we didn’t have the right people focused on the right priorities working together in the right kind of way. And as a result, what could have been a transformative merger ended up struggling, and it ultimately, you know, had to get unwound in terms of kind of a breakup of the company.
So the key lesson there, which I have a whole chapter on in the book, is that, really, it does come down to execution. And execution’s about people. And that’s true, whether it’s a large company like AOL Time Warner, which at its peak, I think, had 90,000 employees, or that you’re a smaller company with nine employees. Ultimately, it comes down to execution and it comes down to people, and if you have the right dynamics there, you have the right people working together in the right ways, focused on the right priorities, establishing the right partnerships, bringing to bear the right level of passion, persevering, you know, then anything is possible. If you don’t have those dynamics working for you, you know, arguably nothing is possible.
Nathan: I see. When you were structuring teams, especially in the early days, what did you look for in a person, someone to hire? Did you look for skills or attitude? What were you specifically looking for to structure those teams?
Steve: Varied based on the stages. I think over the 15 years or so I was part of AOL, we probably had four…maybe even five chief financial officers. Because at each stage of the company, a little bit different skill set, a little bit different mindset was necessary. So it kind of depended on the stage of the company.
The skill set is important. The understanding that particular area, whether it be finance or marketing or sales or customer service or engineering or whatever it might be, having competency in that area, having skill in that area, having a track record in that area, you know, was important.
But that wasn’t enough. That was sort of necessary, but not sufficient. And so, figuring out the broader, you know, skill set in terms of how people really would work together as a team, both internally within the company, and externally with partners, was important as well.
So it was a mix of, you know, kind of skills, competency, if you will. But also, a heavy focus on culture and teamwork.
Nathan: With your venture capital firm, Revolution LLC, you do a lot of investing. What kind of companies are you looking to invest in? Because you seem to me like you’re quite a futurist. So you’re looking ahead quite many years. So what kind of companies are you looking for?
Steve: It’s a mix. We have two groups at Revolution. One’s called Revolution Ventures, which is focused on investing in earlier-stage startups; the other called Revolution Growth, which is investing in later-stage…what we call “speed-ups.” And so, what we’re looking for in terms of the kind of companies, the kind of sectors are a little bit different in each of those. But in the case of the venture side, it is still more of a raw idea, but it’s something that we really think has the potential to have impact in the later-stage, you know, growth side. You know, it’s already a real business, it’s already got some traction. But we have to convince ourselves that it really has the opportunity to be 10, 20, 30 times larger. So in terms of the way we think about it, that’s the core dynamic.
In terms of sector, it’s fairly broad. We…obviously, given our history, invest in a lot of internet-related businesses and a lot of technology-related businesses and sectors like healthcare and education and things like that. But we’ve also, over the last decade, invested in new transportation ideas. Like the first car sharing company, Zipcar, we invested in 12, 13 years ago. The first kind of real estate hospitality sharing concept, a company called Exclusive Resorts, we invested in. In the last five years, we’ve invested in a handful of food companies. We think that food is a sector ripe for disruption.
So it really is sort of sector-agnostic. We’re really looking for great entrepreneurs with great teams that are on the path of building great companies.
Nathan: I see, yeah. It’s funny, I spoke to Robin Chase last night, one of the companies you had mentioned…
Steve: Oh, that’s funny. It’s a small world.
Nathan: …yeah, I know. Lovely lady. Very, very smart, eh?
Steve: Yeah. No, she is. Actually, she had founded the company and then they raised some venture capital, and then she stepped aside and somebody new came in. So I never had the opportunity to work directly with her. But by the time we invested, she had already left. But her idea was really quite visionary.
Nathan: Yeah, no, very, very, cool. Awesome. Well, look, we’ll work towards wrapping up, Steve. But I have to know, you know, from your experience as an entrepreneur, your success, becoming a billionaire, what advice do you have for young entrepreneurs that are looking to get ahead?
Steve: I’d say several things. But I’d start out by saying I’d celebrate any entrepreneur trying to do anything. Because I really do believe that, you know, startups can change the world, and that can come in a lot of different forms. But my personal preference and hope and guidance would be for entrepreneurs to tackle bigger problems, bigger challenges that really could have a more significant and constructive impact on more people’s lives and ultimately on our society, on our world.
So taking on some of those hard challenges, even though they are hard and will take more time, is important. And then bringing kind of a longer-term, kind of built to last mentality, I think is also important. There are entrepreneurs who have a more built to flip kind of…create some app, create some service, [00:26:00] and build it up to a certain level, and sell it to another company a few years later and go off and do something else. And that’s fine; again, I’d be supportive of that.
But my own preference is to take a longer-term view. And I think that’s influenced by own experience with AOL and my experience in those early days of the internet. We took on what was a hard problem in terms of really taking this idea and making it a reality. And it really took us a decade before we, you know, really got traction.
And so, having that longer-term change the world mindset is important. And there are many aspects of many people’s lives in many parts of the world that really could benefit from that innovative mindset, from that entrepreneurial mindset. To me, I’d encourage people to, you know, pick a battle worth fighting, pick a mountain worth climbing, and then, you know, kind of take that long view in terms of really trying to have a significant impact. But recognize that it will require perseverance, it will increasingly require partnerships, it will increasingly require engaging on the policy side of things. And that’s just the nature of the beast if you’re really gonna try to have that significant impact.
And the final point was just to recognize and remember that, often, revolutions happen in more evolutionary ways, which is why that, particularly, perseverance is so important. So I’m happy to champion any entrepreneur trying to do anything. But I’d rather have people take on, you know, difficult problems. How do we improve the health of our communities? How do we improve the learning of our kids? How do we improve the food system so everybody eats healthier? How do we improve the way energy works? How do we improve transportation with smart cities and smart grids? These are big problems which also create big opportunities for the entrepreneurs willing to take that longer-term “Change the world, built to last” mindset.
Nathan: I have to ask, these really, really big problems, do you think they can be solved anywhere in the world? Or do you think, predominantly, these companies have to be started out of Silicon Valley? Kind of like the Airbnbs, the Ubers, and all these unicorn startups?
Steve: No, I definitely think they can start anywhere, and I think one of the chapters in the book is devoted to what I call “the rise of the rest,” and we’re seeing innovation and entrepreneurship both regionalized and globalized. And within the United States, there is a lot of interest not just in what’s happening in Silicon Valley or New York or Boston, but what’s happening in dozens of other cities all across the country. And similarly, we’re seeing great companies tackling great challenges all across the world. And obviously in Asia, in Europe, and even now recently in Africa, there’s a great culture around entrepreneurship that’s forming there.
And one of the companies we invested in a number of years ago actually was an eCommerce software company that started in Sydney and then opened an office in Austin and then in San Francisco, a company called BigCommerce. That was an example of two entrepreneurs that basically had that idea in Sydney, and then as it got more traction, decided to take that idea globally. That dynamic is gonna become much more commonplace in the third wave.
Nathan: Awesome. Okay, fantastic. Well, look, where’s the best place people can go to purchase your awesome book and learn more from you and about you, and get so much insight for the success you’ve achieved with AOL and as a visionary?
Steve: We’ve got a few different sites people can look at. There’s the stevecase.com site, a thirdwavebook.com site, our investment company, Revolution, is revolution.com. And our foundation, the Case Foundation, is casefoundation.org. Or people can just follow me on Twitter. My Twitter is Steve Case.
Nathan: Awesome. Fantastic. Well, look, I’ll wrap there, but thank you so much for your time, Steve. I really appreciate it.
Steve: All right, thank you. I enjoyed talking to you.
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