The trick was convincing investors. While some of the people who backed GameLink came on board, many thought AOL was doomed to fail. Over the next seven years, AOL raised just $10 million from venture firms, including Alan Patricof of Apax Partners. That came at a time when Sears-backed Prodigy had committed to spend $1 billion to build out its business.
The company faced the same skepticism as it prepared to go public. But when shares began trading on March 19, 1992, they jumped 28.3 percent. (By March 1999, AOL shares had risen to nearly 700 times that amount when stock splits were factored in.)
"We'd been at it for seven years and had something like 183,000 customers and $30M in revenues, so most people were saying, 'It doesn't seem like it's catching on,'" said Case. "But enough people bet on the idea, and the road show sold the idea. Thankfully, a decade later we had, like, 30 million customers and $5 billion in revenue."
Building the business to that point took some maneuvering. With no money to market itself, AOL spent its first five years doing private-label services for computer manufacturers—PC Link for Tandy, QLink Commodore, AppleLink for Apple and Promenade for IBM. And it had to aggressively lobby those manufacturers to include the necessary hardware to access those services.
"We had to convince each of them that we were essentially creating a custom service for them and their buyers," said Case. "It took us five years to get those PC manufacturers to believe enough in the idea that they [began] building modems into PCs. Most of them said, 'Why would we add this communications device when so few people are using it?'"
At the same time, AOL had to partner and work with Internet providers (like Sprint) to lower network costs so more people could afford to hop online and explore the Internet.