"I believe some of the things I'm involved in now can change the world."
Steve Case, born and raised in Hawaii, has strong ties to the island state, but he's also lived in Washington, DC, for the past 25 years. He's clearly a product of both environments.
The island influence is apparent in his relaxed manner and casual dress; a boyish-looking 53, he's comfortable in a dark jacket, tan pants and brown loafers, with no tie.
Yet behind the laidback demeanor, there's clearly a dynamo, and it's not hard to see how easily he switches back into Washington mode. His ideas and thoughts clamor for air space; he'll sometimes leave a word half-spoken as his mouth rushes off to catch the next train of thought.
Case's vision and drive led him to co-found America Online in 1985.
It grew into the world's most valuable internet business, which Case later steered toward the largest deal in US history: the US$165b merger with Time Warner. Twenty years later, he started investment company Revolution and has since become a mentor and active investor in more than a dozen successful new companies, including Zipcar, LivingSocial and Exclusive Resorts.
Along with partners Ted Leonsis and Donn Davis, Case also recently launched the US$450m Revolution Growth fund, which will focus on a selective number of investments in innovative, high-growth companies, primarily on the East Coast.
Job creation has been a consistent theme. AOL expanded from 100 employees in 1990 to almost 100,000 at the time of the merger. And in the past four years, LivingSocial has gone from four employees to more than 4,000.
With his track record, Case seems the ideal person to chair the Startup America Partnership. This public-private initiative aims to provide resources for entrepreneurs at all stages of growth — from the initial idea, to start-up, to ramp-up (five or more people and at least two customers), to speed-up (minimum 25 employees and revenue of US$10m).
He's also a member of President Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and has presented a set of recommendations to the President focusing on steps that the administration, Congress and the private sector can take to spur start-ups, entrepreneurship and job creation.
Here, Case tells us about himself, his work and why he believes so passionately in the power of entrepreneurs.
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- Q: How do you account for your success?
A: I've always been passionate about ideas. Even in college, I was passionate about the internet more than a decade before it became mainstream. I believe some of the things I'm involved in now, like Zipcar and LivingSocial, are ideas that can change the world. A lot of it is having perseverance. AOL was certainly not an overnight success … we hit a lot of roadblocks along the way. The people you surround yourself with are critical.
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- Q: Do you think that entrepreneurial passion is something people are born with, or can it be learned?
A: I'm not sure I was necessarily born with it. My father was a lawyer and my mom was a schoolteacher, so there was nothing there that exposed me to entrepreneurship. Some of it's probably what you're born with; some is experiential; some of it is getting passionate about an idea. Many people come to it later because of a particular opportunity that emerged or an idea that developed, so they're almost accidental entrepreneurs.
- Q: How important is entrepreneurship to the US economy?
A: America was built by entrepreneurs. We are still the leading economy in the world. That was not an accident; that was the work of pioneering entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. All the net jobs in the past 30 years have been created by high-growth companies. There's no Plan B … we've got to go all in on entrepreneurship or we're not going to have an economy that we like, an employment rate that we like, or a competitive situation globally that we like.
- Q: What first interested you in the Startup America Partnership?
A: I was asked about a year ago to join and co-chair the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. We said that we really needed to get people, including the President of the United States, talking about the role of entrepreneurship. That led to discussions with the White House that came up with the Startup America initiative. The President asked me to chair that, so I said sure … you don't say no to the President.
- Q: Startup America has now been running for almost a year. What's your take on how things are going so far?
A: I think we're off to a good start. We launched in January, put a board together in the summer and started reaching out to companies that have made about US$800m of commitments to try to help entrepreneurs. And we've started launching regional efforts like Startup Colorado, Illinois and Tennessee. I have also been impressed by the number of entrepreneurs who plugged into Startup America and who want to play a role on the policy side.
- Q: Where do you see future opportunities for entrepreneurs in the US?
A: One of the big opportunities is building up regions around the nation. People fixate on Silicon Valley as a place — but it's also an idea. So, how do you take the idea of Silicon Valley to other places … like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit, which have been a little bit left behind? We're now unleashing the second internet revolution. The first 25 years were about getting everyone connected, habitually and across multiple networks. The next 25 are about using the ubiquity and mobility of the internet to transform other industries.
- Q: What advice would you give someone starting out as an entrepreneur?
A: Entrepreneurship is about being an attacker. Even though this is a difficult economic climate, it has the potential to be the glory years for entrepreneurship. That's because most large companies are becoming even more defensive, more conservative, more focused on protecting what they have, more risk-averse. And that creates an unbelievable opportunity for entrepreneurs willing to play offense. As a company grows, the challenge is to get the benefits of scale without losing creativity, nimbleness, flexibility and entrepreneurial zeal.
- Q: And what are some of the challenges along the road?
A: Assembling a team. Maybe it's just a few people initially, but eventually it's a few dozen and hopefully someday hundreds and thousands. Figure out some way to get into the market as soon as you can and get some feedback — nobody gets it right the first time. Try to be a quick tweaker and fixer. Figure out ways to tap into funding, whether angel investors, venture capital or bank lending. With the SBA loan guarantee program, there are ways to de-risk it for the banks, so they're willing to do things they wouldn't do otherwise.
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