I don’t recall exactly what was going through my mind that morning, 30 years ago this summer, when a group of us in Tysons Corner, Va., launched a start-up called Quantum Computer Services, later renamed America Online.
I do recall what was going through my parents’ minds, though: bewilderment.
Their 26-year-old son, who had recently left jobs at two Fortune 500 companies inside of three years, was now co-founding a start-up with the audacious aim of making an obscure platform called “online services” — the word “Internet” wasn’t common then — part of everyday life.
In fairness to my mom and dad, we had picked a steep and improbable mountain to climb.
Most people didn’t see the need to be connected; only 3 percent of U.S. households were online back then, averaging less than one hour of usage per week. It was not clear why people would want to communicate, buy things or gather information through a computer. Online services were pricey, slow, confusing and of limited usefulness. And it was actually illegal for commercial entities to connect to the Internet until 1991 (until then, doing so was limited to government and university use).
Nonetheless, on May 24, 1985 — armed with little more than a vision and a zealous belief in the possible — we went to work.
It was a slow and steady ascension with many near-death experiences. We went through several layoffs and pivots, trying to identify a viable path forward. When we went public in 1992 — after seven years of hard work — we still had less than 200,000 subscribers.
But we stayed with it, and eventually people decided they did want to get connected. By 2000, when we celebrated our 15th birthday, we had 25 million subscribers and nearly 10,000 employees, and about half of the consumer Internet traffic was flowing through our servers. And our market value went from $70 million at the time of our initial public offering to $150 billion just eight years later. That 11,000 percent appreciation made AOL the best performing stock of the decade.
It was a great journey, watching the Internet come of age and AOL soar. But looking back 30 years later, with nostalgia and pride, I am struck by how our journey is about to be repeated by the next generation of entrepreneurs who are tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Indeed, the Internet’s future may very well look a little like its past.
I consider the early days of AOL, from 1985 to 2000, as part of the first wave of the Internet. This was the period of building the infrastructure, connections and awareness that ushered in a connected world. During this time, companies such as Cisco, WorldCom, IBM, Microsoft, Netscape and AOL were constructing the on-ramps to the information superhighway (remember that term?). For AOL, the focus was on community. We were doing many things from content to commerce, but our primary passion was helping people connect with one another. From chat rooms to Instant Messenger to buddy lists to “you’ve got mail,” it was all about offering features (later called “social media”) that enabled online communities. We always believed the killer app was people. (And we weren’t alone; one of our users — a teenager named Mark Zuckerberg — later told me he got his start hacking our software.)
As AOL’s rise drove worldwide Internet adoption, we set our sights on positioning the company for the next wave. We facilitated the largest merger in business history, between AOL and Time Warner in 2000.
The combined company had great potential to lead in the second wave, as the market shifted from narrow-band, dial-up phone connections to broadband and the disruption of media and commerce took hold. Sadly, the merger was unsuccessful, as the execution didn’t match the vision. In reflecting on that debacle, I’m reminded of something Thomas Edison said a century ago: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” AOL’s dominance faded, and companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook rose to take the lead.
That second wave — from the turn of the century until now — involved a shift from building the Internet to building on top of the Internet. The focus moved from connecting people to creating new ways for them to access information and one another. The sheer volume of information enabled Google to create a dominant search engine. Apple roared back to life with a vision of seamless integration of hardware, software and services. And the explosion in smartphones enabled the Internet to go mobile, unleashing the app economy.
Broadly, the second wave had relatively small engineering teams building apps that, when they broke through, quickly amassed large audiences (think Instagram and Twitter). This led to an “overnight success” phenomenon that looked a lot like the movie and music industries. You either struck gold and got big fast, or you typically went bust (or decided to pivot).
The third wave of the Internet is about to break. The opportunity is now shifting to integrating it into everyday life, in increasingly seamless and ubiquitous ways. These third-wave companies will take on some of the economy’s largest sectors: health care, education, transportation, energy, financial services, food and government services. These third-wave sectors — all now ripe for disruption — represent more than half of the U.S. economy.
The third wave will be different from the second — and will pay homage to some aspects of the first. Although there will be continuing opportunities for new apps and more lean start-ups, the challenges will be new in this next wave, and will require a different kind of entrepreneur.
I tell the entrepreneurs we’re working with at Revolution that to be successful during the third wave they will need to remember the three P’s:
Perseverance: Overcoming long-term structural changes within regulated sectors won’t happen overnight; entrepreneurs (and investors) will need to be more patient.
Partnerships: Just as partnerships were key in the first Internet wave, they will be key again in the third. Entrepreneurs won’t be able to go it alone in the third wave; they must go together.
Policy: Entrepreneurs will need to understand public policy in a more nuanced way. Entrepreneurs who choose to ignore government will do so at their peril, as governments aren’t just the regulators of many of the third-wave sectors — they also are large customers.
And the changes that are brewing as we enter the third wave aren’t just limited to what we do — they also will begin to shift where we do it. Although Silicon Valley will remain the most vibrant innovation region, we are beginning the see what I like to call the rise of the rest, as entrepreneurs start building great companies nationwide. And as partnerships become more important, this trend will accelerate. Coincidentally, last year, 75 percent of venture capital went to just three states: California, Massachusetts and New York. But 75 percent of our Fortune 500 companies are located in the 47 other states, and many of them will play a pivotal role in the third wave, as a new generation of partner-friendly entrepreneurs seeks strategic alliances to gain credibility and accelerate growth.
For those who broke ground on May 24, 1985, that crazy, audacious aim of making the Internet part of everyday life has been realized. And as much as AOL and all that it spawned has changed our world, an even bigger revolution is yet to come.
So get ready — the third wave is about to break.
Steve Case is chairman and chief executive of Revolution LLC, a Washington-based investment firm.