Steve Case is at the same time a very personal man and one whose ambitions have carried him into a very public spotlight, some times more often than he would like. The softly spoken 51-year-old will probably be best remembered for his role in the catastrophic failure of AOL Time Warner, the company which he chaired during the much maligned "dot com" era. Indeed, to this day, ramifications of what was intended to be a media conglomerate megadeal, but which turned into an unmitigated disaster, reverberate.
To remember Steve Case for the AOL Time Warner fiasco would be very unfair. He was one of the most enlightened entrepreneurs of his generation, when the Internet boom was only just beginning and played a major role in the development of America Online, a portal that provided millions of consumers with their first taste of the World Wide Web. As we look at the importance of the Internet today we have Steve Case to thank in no small proportion.
Case was born in 1958 and grew up in Hawaii before moving to the mainland to pursue an education in political science. "I enjoyed high school and college, and I think I learned a lot, but that was not really my focus. My focus was on trying to figure out what businesses to start." He immediately moved into marketing upon graduation and in early 1983 got his first taste of the communications revolution that was ahead. Centered around the ubiquitous Atari videogame console, his startup company, Control Video Corporation, tried to develop a concept whereby games could be downloaded via your phone line and an associated modem. Quantum Computer Services rose from the ashes of that failed company when, in 1985, Case and an influential friend Jim Kimsey oversaw what was ultimately to become America Online. The name change did not take place until 1991 as technology and applications started to catch up with the theory of online communications.
AOL really took off and became the platform for many individual online revolutions. "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." As an example of innovation, the first truly automated multiplayer online role-playing game emerged as part of a decade of unbelievable growth. "Most of the people who had PCs did not have modems and could not use those PCs as communicating devices. They really were using them for spreadsheets or word processing or storing recipes or playing games or what have you."
2001 will be remembered for a number of bad reasons, including what we now know as the dot com recession. A number of ill thought out conclusions and a number of managerial and accounting faux pas ruined a spectacular $160 billion merger between the then dominant AOL and media giant Time Warner. Much has been written of the AOL Time Warner disaster as something that had, in theory, so much potential started to unravel. Within two years Case had resigned as chairman but stayed on the board of directors for some additional time. By early 2005 he admitted that the merger should be unraveled, allowing AOL to set off on its own path.
AOL never recovered from its once heady heights. It surely did not help that the very business model itself was forced to change; AOL was unable to charge for access through its service, as access to the World Wide Web was becoming much more mainstream and widely available.
By 2005, it appeared as if Steve Case had picked himself up and dusted himself off when he launched Revolution. The company’s mission is to partner with entrepreneurs to build businesses seeking to give people more control over their lives. This venture reflects a lot of the philanthropic backbone that Steve is perhaps less well known for. Revolution seeks to help develop programs in the health and wellness fields, an area particularly close to his heart following the death of his elder brother Dan in 2001 from brain cancer.
In his spare time, Steve is the chairman of two nonprofit organizations and is often involved with strategies to help businesses succeed within America. He has been honored with the National Mentor in Partnership Leadership Award. Back in his native Hawaii, he is also an investor in companies that seek to develop new operating models within the agriculture industry.
"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." Many people may still be bitter and refer to the estimated $135 billion in stock losses that occurred following the disintegration of AOL Time Warner, but Steve Case continues to believe that he can contribute greatly to the lives and well-being of Americans off-line as well as online.