The first generation of workers who have never lived without the internet is just now entering the workforce. That’s reason for optimism. It’s also a reminder of how young the vision of mass connectivity is.
Steve Case is a pioneer of that vision. The co-founder of AOL, he helped create not only mass-scale connectivity, but the idea of the internet as a social network of chatrooms and message platforms for everyday people.
Case is now the CEO of Revolution, and recent author of The Third Wave.
We asked him six questions.
If you could go back to, say, 1995 and see how connected the world had become by 2017, what would surprise you the most?
One of our goals was to democratize the internet and make sure everyone got connected and had access. Now the internet is something we find hard to live without. We find it hard to disconnect. What surprises me is how long it took. When I read Alvin Toeffler’s book in 1980, the idea of the internet seemed so inevitable. I knew it was going to happen, but it took decades before the idea took hold.
Is there any part of today’s Internet that would have disappointed you 20 years ago, either because it detracts from the original mission, or because it hasn’t reached a potential you envisioned?
When we first started AOL, I believed that we would be able to build online communities that eliminated geographic and cultural barriers. That has happened to some extent, but I’ve also been surprised how online communities seem to reinforce existing divisions and keep us in our bubbles.
On a more positive note, the internet and technology has done much to make our lives easier, safer and healthier and I think there much possibility ahead. We are just on the cusp of an era where the internet will be ubiquitous and upend major industries that are part of our everyday lives – healthcare, education, transportation, energy, etc. What I call The Third Wave.
A big part of entrepreneurism is devoting yourself to a vision that other people don’t yet understand. I imagine this was the case with the Internet in the early 1990s. What’s your advice for entrepreneurs whose vision is so bold that it’s hard to get most people to take it seriously?
AOL was really a 10-year-in-the-making overnight success. When we started only 3 percent of people were online for one hour a week. We really had our work cut out for us to educate people about the internet and get them online. Even through the difficult times, the team believed in the vision and pushed forward for a decade. But it also took partnerships. AOL had hundreds of partners from The Tribune Company to IBM. Different partners can lend credibility and provide momentum to help create a sense of possibility.
You’re an experienced investor and an experienced CEO. It’s a unique combination of experiences. What do investors frequently misunderstand about running a business, and what do businesses frequently misunderstand about being an investor?
I encourage investors to look for opportunities outside of the usual hubs of San Francisco, New York and Boston. There are great entrepreneurs and companies in cities all across the country tackling challenges in agriculture, healthcare, transportation and other industries that will change the way we live our lives.
Businesses should know that investing isn’t just about the money. At my firm Revolution, it’s about the expertise and the partnership we bring to our portfolio companies. We want to partner with entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and overcome challenges.
What’s a piece of commonly accepted business advice that you disagree with?
Many people believe a business’ focus should be solely on profit and shareholder value. In this new era, I think purpose is just as important. More employees want to work for companies that have an impact and more customers want to buy brands that do good. There are many examples of companies that marry both profit and purpose successfully – Patagonia, Etsy, Kickstarter and Warby Parker to name just a few. To be successful, purpose should be factored in your bottom line.
What have you changed your mind about in the last decade?
Over the last three and half years, I’ve toured 26 cities and traveled over 6,000 miles visiting entrepreneurs and startups all over the country for Revolution’s Rise of the Rest initiative. Most of the capital and attention have gone to coastal hubs - last year 75% of venture capital went to CA, NY and MA. My hope is this initiative will bring to light the talented entrepreneurs and incredible opportunity there is in places outside of Silicon Valley. I’m encouraging more VCs to change their mindset and explore outside of their bubble to visit startups in the middle of the country.