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AOL founder Steve Case: It took 10 years for AOL to become a success



Steve Case
Steve Case is the founding
CEO of AOL and the chairman and CEO of the venture capital firm

Hollis Johnson/Business

  • Steve
    is the billionaire founding CEO of AOL and the head of
    Washington, DC-based venture-capital firm Revolution.
  • Case said AOL’s initial public offering had little fanfare
    and that it took a decade for him to feel like it was successful.
  • He knew he had finally broken through when, after AOL went
    down for a day, it became the top news story.

America Online became iconic in the 1990s, helping to make
browsing the internet part of everyday life for millions of

It was also the first internet company to go public, when it
listed on the Nasdaq exchange in March, 1992. “But nobody really
cared,” founding CEO Steve Case
told Business Insider
for a recent episode of its podcast,
Is Success
.” He said most traders and the business media saw
it as “just like some quirky little computer services company
going public.”

AOL began its life in 1985, as a company with the much less
catchy name of Quantum Computer Services. Case explained that
AOL’s rise is a case study in the patience and perseverance
required in bringing about massive shifts to an industry or even
society as a whole. “It was easily a decade after we got
started,” that he felt like his company was a success, he said,
and it was on a day when AOL was down and the country freaked

steve case nyse aol ipo
Case celebrates in front
of the New York Stock Exchange building on the day AOL began
trading on its exchange.

Courtesy of
Steve Case

Case helped build Quantum Computer Services with tech
entrepreneurs Jim Kimsey and Marc Seriff. He wasn’t an engineer,
but rather a visionary and business strategist. In his early 20s,
he read futurist Alvin Toffler’s book “The Third Wave,” which
imagined a world where people would be able to use computers to
communicate with people around the world, creating communities.
It seemed like a wild idea at the time, and he didn’t nearly have
the skills or resources available yet to make it happen, but he
knew that he had to help make it happen.

Case told us that, as the CEO of AOL (the name change happened in
1991), the day “where it just felt like we arrived,” happened in
1996. AOL shifted from an hourly fee model to a more affordable
and convenient monthly flat rate. Case and his team knew it would
attract more users, but not as many who joined. AOL was down for
19 hours, keeping six million people from using the internet. “It
could be called the silence of the techno nerds,” Peter van
reported for CBS News
. As that turn of phrase proves, the
internet and the culture around it still had a ways to go for
total permeation of American society, but it was certainly a
turning point.

Case said, “the headline in almost every newspaper in the country
was that AOL was down, and it was striking because it was only a
few years before that nobody knew or cared what we were doing. If
we had been down for a month, nobody would’ve noticed.” It was a
bad experience to be down for so long, but it was a validating
one, as well, after 10 years of being dismissed.

As Case said, “maybe there’s some part of my personality that’s
sort of, when people say it can’t be done, that’s sort of the
challenge, and I say, ‘OK, well, we’ll see about that.'”

Listen to the full episode and subscribe to “This Is
Success” on Apple
 or your favorite podcast app.

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