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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

Co-Founder, America Online

June 12, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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  Steve Case

Why don't you start by telling us a little about your childhood and how you got interested in business. Where did you grow up?

Steve Case: I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. I didn't fully appreciate it. Growing up on an island is a little different than most people's childhood experiences, but I really enjoyed it.

From a relatively early age I got interested in business. I'm not sure I knew what an entrepreneur was when I was ten, but I knew that starting little businesses and trying to sell greeting cards or newspapers door-to-door or just vending machine kind of thing is -- there's just something very intriguing to me about that. So I think relatively early on I probably was on a path to be more of an entrepreneur, and I think everybody in my family kind of sensed that.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What did your folks do?

Steve Case Interview Photo
Steve Case: My father still is a lawyer, and my mom was a teacher and then later a career counselor. My father and his brothers were all lawyers, so I think that the expectation was probably for me to grow up to be an attorney, but it never really fascinated me that much. I was more interested in building things.

Can you tell us about your brothers or sisters?

Steve Case: I had an older brother who passed away recently, an older sister and a younger brother. My older brother went into business and was a very successful investment banker. He took a lot of companies like Apple and Genentech public, and then a couple of years ago died from brain cancer. My older sister is a teacher; she lives in California. My younger brother is in the insurance business in Hawaii.

What kind of schools did you go to?

Steve Case: I had the unusual experience of going to the same school from kindergarten through 12th grade so I was in what they call "The 13-year Club," which is a nice private school in Honolulu, right across the street from where I was living, so I was able to wander across the street to get to school, and it really was interesting being in the same school for so many years. Nowadays people seem to switch schools, either because they have to, and certain schools only serve certain grades, or because they move to a different place or have some particular interest, but I was in the same school for 13 years.

Was it a small private school?

Steve Case: No, it was relatively large by most school standards. There were several hundred people in each class. The whole school was a little over 2,000, because the younger grades had smaller classes than the high school did. It's a wonderful school. A few months ago I agreed to go on the board of the school. It's called Punahou School. I'm helping them build a new middle school campus. When they asked me to join the board, I told them I was flattered, but since I lived in Washington, D.C. and the school was in Honolulu, Hawaii, I'm not sure I'll be able to attend many board meetings, but I was still happy to play some role. So I just get on those calls telephonically late at night. There is a time zone difference.

Were there particular teachers that inspired you?

Steve Case: I wouldn't say that inspired me. There were teachers that would push me. I was not an outstanding student. I did a reasonable amount of work. I got generally good--pretty good grades, but I was not that passionate about getting straight A's. I was more passionate about starting businesses. In retrospect I wish I had spent a little more time on some of the studies. Whether high school or college, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity. 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.

Were there favorite books that stand out in your mind?

Steve Case: One in particular that actually was a meaningful impact in terms of what I ended up doing -- focusing on interactive service and the Internet -- was a book I read in college in the late 1970s by Alvin Toffler called The Third Wave, and he was viewed and still is viewed as sort of a futurist, but I read the book and it talked about a world where there would be an electronic frontier and that people would be interacting with their TVs.

Toffler was seen as a futurist. Didn't that all seem a long way off?

Steve Case: When I read The Third Wave I didn't think of it as futuristic. I mean, I thought of it as being sort of the next big thing. It just struck me as obvious that some day consumers would want to decide what they wanted to see and how they wanted to get it, and not just be passive recipients sitting on a couch with a remote control, watching television or picking up a newspaper. They wanted to somehow interact and do research on things, or talk to other people or what have you. At the time in the late '70s there was -- personal computers didn't really exist. Certainly home PCs didn't really exist, but everybody had a television, so the initial focus for the first years -- in the late '70s and early '80s -- was, "How do you create essentially interactive television, two-way television?" And then later in the '80s, really when PCs started becoming more common in homes, that's when the shift was more profound towards PCs. But the Alvin Toffler vision of this, and sort of how an electronic community might form, as I said, I buy into that. I remember even when I was in college and writing, sending resumes out to different companies, my cover letter really talked about, "We're about to usher in a new digital age, and with two-way televisions and more of an electronic frontier..." And this was 1979, I guess, and most people 25 years ago, I think, thought I was a little bit loony, but I just believed. And so, I just kept pursuing that.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

After graduating from high school I went to college in Massachusetts -- Williams College, a small liberal arts school which I really enjoyed. And then after that I went to work for Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are a great marketing company. And then PepsiCo, the Pizza Hut Division, in Wichita, Kansas. But, I didn't do those too long. I think I was at Proctor & Gamble probably about two years, and Pizza Hut about one year. And when I was 24, I think, I moved to Washington, D.C., and started focusing on interactive services, and that's really what I then did for 20 years.

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