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If you like Stephen Cases's story, you might also like:
Timothy Berners-Lee,
Jeffrey Bezos,
Michael Dell,
Lawrence Ellison,
Bill Gates,
Reid Hoffman,
Jeong Kim,
James Kimsey,
Pierre Omidyar,
Larry Page,
Carlos Slim
and Ted Turner

Stephen Cases's recommended reading: The Third Wave

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Steve Case
Steve Case
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Steve Case Interview (page: 4 / 8)

Co-Founder, America Online

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  Steve Case

Lots of us are old enough to remember when "computer" referred to a room-sized machine that only existed at places like Berkeley and MIT. This revolution has happened very quickly. Did you have any idea that we would come so far so fast?

Steve Case: I'd say yes and no.

When I first got started in the late '70s, early '80s, and first was thinking about the interactive world, I believed so fervently that it was the next big thing, I thought it would happen quickly. What happened then was it's been 10 or 15 years just slogging away at this, and there were many times where it wasn't clear at all it was going to ever happen. So, finally it broke through. So, I think for me it was -- I was overestimating the pace at which it would happen early on, and then I -- and I less than most because I was a believer -- was sort of underestimating exactly when it would happen. And if you look at history of the diffusion of technology, the diffusion of innovation, that almost always happens. People in the early stage -- it goes from nobody knows about it to suddenly they're aware of it and think it's going to happen overnight. It almost never happens overnight, so then there's a period of reflection and disappointment. Sometimes even depression, where someone says, "Oh, it's never going to happen!" and then suddenly the pieces start falling together, and then it takes off and really hits a tipping point where you see the real explosive growth.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

So you have to look at each of these different periods over the last 20 or 25 years. It was really only in the mid '90s -- and I had been at this for quite some time -- that it really became apparent that this was going to be a mass phenomenon, and the pace at which it was growing was so phenomenal.

I think it took us nine years to get one million subscribers to AOL, and then in the next nine years we went from one million to 35 million. We were adding a million every couple of months. And so, it just shows you that you just got to -- you stick it out. If you believe that some day it's going to happen, some day it probably will happen. You just have to make sure you're there when it's happening, and ideally you're at the front of the parade, and the principle beneficiary of when it happens, but it's not a kind of thing where you just sort of sit back and wait. The actions you take really help influence the pace at which it gets adopted. For example, the issue of essentially being the evangelist within the PC industry that modems should become a built-in part of a PC. It took us a while, but if we hadn't done that I don't know where we'd be today, but I know we would not be the kind of interactive society we are today, because that was a major kind of breakthrough. So you know, other companies weren't doing that. We took the lead in doing that. That's true in any new, innovative area. Somebody needs to step up and take the lead, and ultimately they end up benefiting, and others end up benefiting as well. But it's not like you just sit back and eventually it's going to happen. It's going to happen when people make it happen, and you have to kind of have a strategy that is pragmatic at one level, so you can hang in for the long run, but proactive in another level, so you can actually try to accelerate the pace that it's going to take for something to take off.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Since the great success of AOL and the establishment of the information super highway, a number of people have taken credit for that innovation? What is your view of who came up with this concept that we could all be connected and exchange information ad infinitum?

Steve Case: I think it's a collective effort like most things. I think different people were doing different things and built on each other's work.

I do think actually in this case the government does get credit for funding some of the basic research. Particularly DARPA, Defense Agency Research, they created the DARPA-NET, which then really became the Internet. So it's a good example of the government providing some of the core funding to create some basic research, and then backing away and having a fairly "hands off" kind of non-regulatory approach and letting the free market take over. I think that's really what has driven the success. I think there are many different companies, many different scientists, many different marketers, many different creative programmers that all played a role. I think it really was a collective effort, as I would say with AOL. Even though we started with a few dozen people, we ended up with having many thousands of people, and it really was a collective effort, and it's the kind of thing -- I think it's true with any major change -- no one person can really make it happen. You can perhaps be a lead and you can perhaps be a catalyst, but it really is about the team. And I'd say one of the great lessons I've learned over the past couple of decades, from a management perspective, is that really when you come down to it, it really is all about people and all about leadership. That just one or two people can make a huge difference.

Steve Case Interview Photo
Spending more of your time figuring out who you want to have on your team, and then pointing them in the direction that you want to go is really critical. You're only as strong as your team, and people typically don't spend enough time recruiting. One of my challenges was always being like a professional recruiter, always looking at people as free agents and figuring, "Okay. They may be doing this now over there, but they seem like they have the perspective and skills that could be helpful here. How do we figure out a way of bringing them into our fold?" Constantly being on the lookout for talent is a critical variable, I think, particularly in these emerging markets.

It sounds as if part of growing a business is not just having a good idea, but being able to work with people and respect their input and their investment.

Steve Case: No question. I have always thought that it's a mix. When I was trying to popularize the concept of the Internet -- ten or 15 years ago -- I came up with this concept of "the 5 Cs." Services needed to have content, context, community, commerce, and connectivity. After that, when I was trying to think of what the key management principles were to build into the culture, I started talking about the Ps. The P's were things like passion, perseverance, perspective and people. I think the people aspect is really the most important one.

If you're doing something new you've got to have a vision. You've got to have a perspective. You've got to have some north star you're aiming for, and you just believe somehow you'll get there, which kind of gets to the passion point. You've got to be able to take a step back and not be so caught up in the day-to-day that you don't have a sense of the broader tectonic shifts, and maybe you have to make some adjustment, which is why the perspective part is important. You've got to stick with it, because these things are not overnight successes in almost all cases. I think one of the problems I think we had more recently with the Internet boom is that they tended to be overnight successes, and people didn't really have the time to be tested in a time. They're going to go through ups and downs, and so as a result I think people lost some of that perspective. But ultimately, even though all those different factors are important, I'd say people are the most important, and if you really got the right people, and you've got them working together as a team, whether it's in business, whether it's in science, whether it's in politics, you can make a big difference. If you don't have the right people, no matter how smart you are, no matter how good your idea is, you're not going to get very far.

You have to get along with people, but you also have to recognize that the strength of a team is different people with different perspectives and different personalities. You're really trying to attract people that think like you. In some ways it's easier to communicate, but you're not going to have a diverse perspective that is critical in looking at things in a different context, and being able to focus on the future and not simply look in the rear view mirror and be looking backwards at the past. So you have to force yourself out of a comfort zone and really try to figure out what are the key ingredients, the key skill sets, the key perspectives that are necessary, and then figure out a way to attract the very best people to fill those particular roles. It's stunning to me what kind of an impact even one person can have if they have the right passion, perspective and are able to align the interest of a great team.

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This page last revised on May 01, 2008 16:05 EST
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