Steve Case has always had his finger on the startup pulse. He co-founded AOL in 1985 and served as CEO until the company merged with Time Warner in 2000.
Case is currently the chairman and CEO of Revolution, a venture capital firm based in Washington, D.C. that has invested companies ranging from Zipcar to LivingSocial and Handy, a home-cleaning service.
He also pursues philanthropic efforts as the chairman of his eponymous Case Foundation, which worked together with the White House and the Kauffmann Foundation to found the Startup America Partnership, a program focused on creating a network of success for startups across the country.
We caught up with Case to talk about the importance of a building the right team to execute your vision, persevering in the face of adversity and supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs who have their eyes on the long game.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you were first starting out?
A: I would have recognized the power of strategic partnerships to accelerate the growth of startups. The first startup I joined failed, in part because it tried to do too much on its own. So when we started AOL, we had a bias towards partnerships. We worked with dozens of communications, computer, software and content companies. AOL could not have been successful – and the Internet would not have come of age – without partnerships. There’s an African proverb that makes this point well: “If you want to go quickly, go alone – but if you want to go far, go together.”
Q: What do you think would’ve happened had you known this back then?
A: My first startup might have been more successful if we had embraced partnerships. But in retrospect I think it was more than that, as we didn’t have the right team of people.
I’ve learned that what you do in life – and certainly your ability to be successful – will largely be dependent on your ability to work with people. For a startup, nothing is more important than assembling the right team. You need the right people, with the right passion, the right perspective and the right level of perseverance.
Q: How do you think young entrepreneurs might benefit from this lesson?
A: Having an idea is important. That’s where the entrepreneurial journey starts. But as Thomas Edison said: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” You need more than an idea. You need to execute, and to execute you need a team because entrepreneurship is a team sport. The team you build will define the company you build.
Q: What is your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: Have an instinct for not only where things are now but also where things are going. When we started AOL, only 3 percent of people were online at all – and it was actually illegal for consumers and businesses to connect to the Internet (at the time, it was restricted to government and university use only). It was tough those first few years –and it took more than a decade for us to get traction. But we stuck with it. We believed in the idea of interactivity and had the patience to see it through. Perseverance means pushing against currents that can be relentless – and sometimes exhausting. But if you want to change the world, you have to take the long view.
Entrepreneurs need to build networks of people that surround their companies. And then they have to pay attention to what’s happening around them. They have to be willing to experiment and adapt. Every once in a while there is a true overnight success, but most successful companies are built over time and make adjustments to reflect what they are seeing and hearing.
Wayne Gretzky was a great hockey player, because he didn’t focus on where the puck was, he focused on where the puck was going. The same is true for most successful entrepreneurs. It’s a journey, with lots of chapters. It can be a roller coaster, with lots of ups and downs. But you have to keep moving forward – and have to constantly inspire your team to continue to persevere.
Q: What are you glad you didn’t know then that you know now?
A: Building AOL and helping to popularize the Internet was harder than I expected, and took a lot longer than I thought it would. We always believed the Internet would be a major part of daily life but there were some days when it wasn’t clear exactly when that time would finally come. We saw the light at the end of the tunnel – but the light was pretty dim and getting to it at times seemed elusive. But I’m glad I started when I did and stuck with it. It was a great adventure.
Now I’m excited to be backing the next generation of entrepreneurs, through my investment company Revolution. We invest in people and ideas that can change the world, and back the entrepreneurs that have a “built-to-last” mindset.