There's no one father of the Internet, but Steve Case comes pretty close—and as the co-founder of America Online, CEO of investment firm Revolution, chairman of the Case Foundation and chairman of the Startup America Partnership, he also knows a thing or two about running a business.
OPEN Forum’s Community Manager Adam Sandler recently caught up with Case at SXSW V2V—South By Southwest’s first conference solely dedicated to entrepreneurship, innovation, and business—where Case was a keynote speaker. Using questions sourced from the OPEN Forum community and social media, we discovered what the world-famous entrepreneur had to say about listening to your own community, finding the resources to grow, and accepting failure.
What was the hardest challenge or obstacle that you’ve dealt with in your career?
The hardest thing for me, when we first were starting AOL over 25 years ago, was getting people to believe in the idea of the Internet—which now seems crazy, because of course the Internet's part of everyday life. But when we started, only 3 percent of people were online, and they were only online an hour a week. So getting people to believe in that idea was important. It was hard to ask people to join the company. It was hard to raise capital. It was hard to establish partnerships, because most people didn't believe in that idea.
I think many business owners, across all kinds of industries, have that same problem. They have an idea. They think there's a better way forward. But how do you get other people to believe in your ideas, so you can attract the team you need to get started, you can start attracting the initial customers, you can get some attention—whether it be from local press or social media—and it can help fuel what you're doing? You have to start as a founder, an entrepreneur with an idea that you believe in. But then the challenge is to get other people to believe in that idea, too.
In challenging times, how would you solicit advice? How important is community when you’re building a business?
I think for any entrepreneur—I certainly found this when we were building AOL, and some of the other companies we've been involved in more recently—you've got to be a really good listener. You've got to pay attention to what's happening. You have to know what people in your company are saying, but also what your customers are saying, what the people in the community are saying, or what your competitors are doing. You have to have sort of a listening gene that's paying attention to what's going on. And it's got to be responsive; you have to act on it. Because there are always some people who are just so sure they're right, they're fixated on their particular vision of things; they're really not listening.
A lot of our OPEN Forum members discussed the challenge of scaling. This is a road that you've been down before. Can you talk about your experience with scaling, and how to think about growing a small business?
Well, every entrepreneur has a different reason for doing what they're doing, and different motivations for doing what they're doing, and I think that should be respected. There are some who maybe open a restaurant and only want to run one restaurant, and that's fine. That's actually a key part of what drives our country—Main Street, mom-and-pop businesses.
But there are also many entrepreneurs who start there and actually do have the aspiration of growing something larger. The challenge for them is trying to figure out when is the right time to move, and how to attract the resources you need—both the team to join your company, and the capital you need to invest in this expansion.
Partnerships may be able to drive that. New technology might be able to help you scale your business. And when you understand what's possible and you choose to take on that more expansive growth path, then you need to make sure you have lined up the right resources to do that. The good news is there are a lot more resources available now than there might have been 25 years ago.
How can a small, local business utilize a dynamic like crowdfunding to build social capital and ultimately create a thriving business?
There are many communities where small businesses do a really good job of supporting each other. They create almost a little bit of a network effect, and now with these new technologies and social media, you can do that more expansively. And you also can tap into new tools like crowdfunding that maybe allow you to raise some capital to expand, but also get more people to be part of your vision, part of your mission, part of your team, because they're invested in what you're doing. They believe in what you're doing. They're going to champion what you're doing. So there's no right or wrong answer. Every entrepreneur has to figure out what makes most sense for them.
According to some estimates, half of small businesses fail within their first five years. Failure is a huge topic, and it's perhaps the greatest fear for a lot of small-business owners who are just getting started. What have you learned about failure?
The Case Foundation launched an initiative recently called Be Fearless, and it's exactly to this issue: How do you encourage people to embrace risk and recognize that failing is part of the option? If you want to be successful, you're going to have some failures. Even Babe Ruth, who was the home run king, was also the strikeout king. It goes with the territory if you're out there taking risks. You’ve just got to understand that, and recognize that if you do fail—well then, what did you learn from that? How do you take your next shot and be smarter about it because of the learning you had when you struggled? And I think these struggles are very important. I mean, nobody wants to struggle. Nobody wants to fail. But you're going to struggle, and sometimes you're going to fail.
So the question is, how do you pick yourself up and move on, and how do you learn from those experiences? And particularly, how do you build a community around you so you learn from each other, so you're not just on this entrepreneurial journey on your own? You're part of a broader fabric, whether it be a local community or a broader community, digitally or some other way.
We can all learn from each other and help each other. One of the great African proverbs I always loved was the idea that if you want to go quickly, you can go alone, but if you want to go far, you must go together.
Photos from top: Jessica Cox / Courtesy of SXSW V2V, Courtesy of The Case Foundation