Steve Case on Lessons for Entrepreneurs and HS Seniors

It was a totally packed house last night, with more than 200 people crammed into the cool new theater and networking space at the Cambridge Innovation Center’s Venture Café here in Cambridge, MA. The person of interest for the invitation-only crowd: AOL founder-turned-venture capitalist Steve Case.

Case, of course, is one of the best-known entrepreneurs in America (you can find his full background here). He left AOL Time Warner a decade ago and now heads venture fund Revolution Partners, based in Washington, DC.

Conducting the chat with Case was CIC founder and president (and Xconomist) Tim Rowe. Their conversation ranged from the JOBS Act to immigration reform to tales from high school and a lot more. Here are some big themes—and some littler ones— that struck me as especially interesting and worth sharing:

Case went to high school with Barack Obama.

It was Punahou School, an elite private school in Honolulu, where Case grew up. He was a senior when the future president was a junior. Case didn’t know him very well, he said, but let this be a lesson to you, he told the crowd: “Be nice to everyone.” You never know who’ll control the CIA and Armed Forces.

Most ideas that change the world take a long time to really bear fruit.

Sometimes you get lucky, Case said, like that kid Zuckerberg. But mostly, big-time entrepreneurship is a long slog. For instance, he said, it took 10 years for AOL to break through (as an entrepreneur with a six-year-old startup, I found that especially gratifying to hear).

In his case, AOL had only 184,000 customers after 10 years of sending those disks through the mail trying to get everyone online. It would have some 25 million by the end of the next decade. Case drew laughs with his rendition of some family members saying: “I know you want to get America online. They’re not getting online. Give it up.”

“250 years ago, America was a startup.”

I just really liked that line. It made me appreciate the fact that the founding fathers were entrepreneurs on a truly massive scale. I mean, if you think Facebook or Google are world-changing ideas, compare them to the concept of America. Case put it a little differently, though: “The reason we’re the leader of the free world is not just because of what the patriots did … but because of what the entrepreneurs did, building companies and entire industries that drove our economy” to be the world’s leader, he said. And he warned to watch out for the rise of entrepreneurship in other countries.
Steve Case at Venture Cafe
Crowdfunding might really help women entrepreneurs.

This was in response to an audience question about the dearth of female entrepreneurs and the trouble they have raising capital. Historically, Case said, raising money has had a lot to do with who you know——and that has been largely a man’s purview. Crowdfunding could be “transformative,” because it is really geared toward what people want to do, not who they are. That should help women entrepreneurs, he said.

Case is now investing in the “second Internet revolution.”

AOL was part of the first Internet revolution. The second revolution is about “using the Internet to improve how we learn, how we live, transportation, energy, how we stay healthy.” Those areas, he said, “have not changed that much” over the past 25 years.

“It’s partly the entrepreneur, but I need to fall in love with the idea.” 

This was an interesting insight into Case’s investment philosophy. Usually you hear VCs say they invest in people, not the idea—because they know the idea will change along the way and they want great people who can adapt and evolve. Founder and team are important to Case, but he is mostly focusing on the idea: it has to be something that can really change the field it is addressing.

The importance of partnerships.

Audience member Michael Schrage, also an Xconomist, asked how Case’s ideas for judging people and talent had changed over the years. I’m not sure Case directly answered this question, but his initial reaction to the question was to cite Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Case also said he came to realize that partnerships were more important than he’d thought back in the day, especially when it came to dealing with the monumental problems society is facing. “I don’t think you’re going to revolutionize education or healthcare unless you can partner with a lot of people,” he said.


Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at Follow @bbuderi

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