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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

Related Links:
Case Foundation

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Steve Case
Steve Case
Profile of Steve Case Biography of Steve Case Interview with Steve Case Steve Case Photo Gallery

Steve Case Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Co-Founder, America Online

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  Steve Case

Motivating. Getting people to believe in your vision. That's an important talent.

Steve Case Interview Photo
Steve Case: Right. When people talking about motivating, they often talk about cheerleading, kind of a pep rally kind of approach. We did some of those things. At various stages, as the company got larger you try to figure out a way to reach a large audience, and it's more of an event kind of orientation. But I found that motivation is not really about that. It's more about instilling passion in people. Ideally they have it to begin with. They really believe they're on a mission. They really believe that what this team is doing -- in our case it was a company -- has a potential to change the world. They make the commitment of time and energy and sacrifice to figure out a way to break through. Sometimes it's more motivating to just have people know that you have high expectations, and when you're not getting there, be quiet about it, but they know that they let you down and they redouble their effort.

I don't think I'm much of a back-slapping, glad-handing kind of schmoozy people person. That never has been one of my strengths. It really was setting a direction and setting an expectation and getting the right people working together, and really focused on, "How do we get to the promise land?" Having them self-manage themselves a little bit, knowing what the expectation was, and always setting the bar pretty high.

I remember when we had -- I think it was two or three hundred thousand subscribers. I said, "We're going to get a million subscribers. We're on a march to a million." And people thought I was crazy, because they thought we'd never get to a million subscribers. We were adding, I don't know, it was, you know, 1,000 subscribers a month or something and you'd say, "Well geez, people will be dead before we get to a million subscribers." I said, "Well, we're on a march to a million and we're going to get there and here is how we're going to get there and here are the things we need to do to get there." And after a little while, a few months, people started believing we can get there, and we did get there. And we got there faster than people thought, and then we were basically on a roll, and the growth really started to accelerate. So it really was setting out that mission. It wasn't exactly the equivalent of "Let's put a man on the moon," but for us this march to a million was a big deal, because it meant we were going to go from being a little company, kind of this tiny little upstart, underfunded, nobody ever heard of, competing against giants like IBM and Sears that had Prodigy, and H&R Block that had Compuserve, and GE that had Genie, and this little company was sort of irrelevant. If we got to a million, we felt that kind of put us in the big leagues, so we were on this march to a million, and we got there.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

It has been a world-changing innovation. Have you looked back on some of the ways in which computers have introduced new problems to our society? Children may have access to pornography, some crimes can be committed, some bad information can be distributed. It's sort of a mixed blessing.

Steve Case: For better or worse, that is true with any new innovation, certainly any new technological innovation. There's many good things that come out of it, but also some bad things. All you can do is try to maximize the good stuff and minimize the bad stuff.

More than a decade ago we started investing in what we called parental controls, because we felt it was really important that kids had access to the Internet, but it's equally important that parents had some control over what they accessed. And rather than we deciding sort of on our own what was or wasn't appropriate for a particular child, we thought it was important to put those tools in the hands of each parent and let them decide. And some would be very strict and some would be very lenient, but ultimately we felt it was important for parents to decide.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

We actually felt it was important enough that when they created what we called a sub-account on AOL for somebody else, they actually had to go through the process of these parental controls, and either set them up or decide not to set them up, but it was integrated into the registration process. As a result, a vast majority of parents with kids ended up using these parental controls. That's an example of how you take what could be a real problem and try to mitigate some of that.

We felt it was important, in a world where access was becoming more and more critical, that we not have a digital divide between the haves and the have-nots. So we created several initiatives, and even personally through our Case Foundation, created something called "Power Up," and built 1,000 technology centers, mostly in Boys and Girls Clubs, but also in YMCAs, churches and other places, to really provide access to computers and Internet in low income neighborhoods and housing projects, so that people -- when they went to school and some homework was assigned that required the use of the computer -- the kids who couldn't afford a computer at home could still participate and wouldn't be left behind.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

So there are always these challenges you face. You're not going to have to worry about a digital divide if nobody is connected. How do you create a market, so instead of having it be just a few people, the hobbyist in the corner, it's a mainstream phenomenon? As you begin to achieve that kind of mainstream success, how do you supplement and complement what you're doing from a business standpoint with things you might be doing philanthropically, or the tools you might be building into the business to try to guide it in a more positive light?

That has worked very well, hasn't it? There's increasing access in the public schools.

Steve Case: It's still a problem, and there's always going to be some divide when there's some economic disparity or technological disparity. For example, one area which is still a matter of concern is on Indian reservations. We've done some work there to build computer centers, but the basic infrastructure is generally lacking. Phone lines, for example. In a lot of the areas in this country -- not in Africa, in this country -- on Indian reservations often the infrastructure really is quite limited. So there's still some work to be done. Five or ten years ago, when it was clear the Internet was becoming a mainstream phenomenon, it was equally clear that a lot of people were being left out and could be left behind. Much of that fear has been diminished through the efforts -- not just of AOL but many other companies -- to try to figure out some way to bridge the digital divide. Now most people do have access, even if they can't afford something at home, either at school or at a library or at a Boys and Girls Club or at some other facility.

Computers are less expensive than they were. Almost every year makes them more accessible.

Steve Case: It's partly price. It's partly simplicity. One of the problems with computers, particularly for the older people, is they were befuddled by them, and the computers have gotten better. They have gotten easier to use. They have gotten less expensive. The software interfaces have made things a lot more accessible. Even wireless access is easier, because you can go to a new city with a device and have it already working when you land, as opposed to, "How do I configure this?" and "How do I make this work?" which was hard for a lot of people.

So overall the trends have been pretty good. I think the trends will continue to be good, and more people will be connected through more devices, more networks, more conveniently, more affordably. But that's not to say that we shouldn't keep the bar pretty high and try to make sure we really are doing whatever we can to make sure this medium really is as rich as it possibly can be, and can reach as many people as it possibly can.

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