Editor’s note: Successful innovators take time to build something

June 3, 2012

When it comes to technology, we like to think the innovators are these pioneers brazen enough to defy the old ways of doing things to forge whole new durable industries.

But anyone who lived through the boom and bust of the dot-com bubble knows better. Tech companies are not immune to economic fundamentals and business cycles, and what they create can be undone in the blink of an eye.

I was reminded of those lessons when I sat down for a public chat with former AOL Chairman Steve Case to wrap up the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association’s Capital Connection conference in D.C.

The AOL that Case built was the first true consumer-centric company that got America on the Internet. It is often remembered as this bright star that grew so big, so fast, it could gobble up one of mediapowerhouse Time Warner, only to fizzle when advertisers pulled back during an economic lull and its customers migrated from dial-up telephone access to always-on broadband.

But that arc overshadows other elements of the AOL saga equally important to anyone setting out to build the next big thing.

Before AOL became a household name, Case and his team spent nearly a decade toiling away, waiting for advances in personal computers and modems and telephone pricing policies to make getting online even feasible for most people. It takes a kind of fortitude to stick something like that out, when friends and family wonder what you are doing with your life.

Their patience was rewarded with spectacular riches, of course, even if brief. But what the company lacked in durability, it made up in a legacy of another sort. The company produced a generation of leaders who now have a hand in funding or building a great many companies in the Washington area.

Case has become an elder statesmen of the local business scene, and has made it his mission to nurture entre­pre­neur­ship and back companies seeking to solve big problems. The goal, he says, is not to build companies to flip, or sell, but to build ones to last.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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