Leadership

Steve Case: Remember, even the internet was once a tough sell

AOL co-founder and former CEO Steve Case spends most of his time these days helping other entrepreneurs and providing resources for them.

He has a wealth of experience to draw from, most notably his time at America Online, where he helped make the internet ubiquitous. Case told CNBC that while internet use is common today, AOL faced substantial hurdles from the very beginning.

"When we got started with AOL over 30 years ago, only 3 percent of people were online and they were only online one hour a week. ... Most people didn't know what [the internet] was, didn't know why they would ever need it," the 57-year-old entrepreneur said.

"It went from something nobody knew about or cared about to something people can't live without," said Case, co-founder and CEO of investment firm Revolution.

While AOL's success seems obvious now, Case said it took "more than a decade before [AOL] really got traction."

"You have to have perseverance because if you're really trying to have an impact, trying to change the world, that doesn't happen overnight. It takes some time," he said.

"Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes there's an overnight success. Usually it's a slog over many years," he said, adding that sometimes young entrepreneurs underestimate the amount of time it takes to launch a business and become frustrated when things don't happen quickly.

At investment firm Revolution, Case spends a lot of time listening to entrepreneurs pitch their businesses. His advice to founders is to "be really crisp about the idea" and "explain the team because entrepreneurship really is a team sport."

Case also tells entrepreneurs to be aware of the market and the context within which they expect to operate and compete. This is where people can easily make the mistake of coming off as arrogant or presumptuous.

"Sometimes you'll hear they have no competition," Case said. "My view is when somebody says they have no competition, either they're lying because they do or they're ignorant because they do and don't know about it."

Steve Case
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Steve Case

It's hard to imagine what the next thing is that has the potential to be as disruptive as internet access was. For entrepreneurs looking to create the next big thing, Case's advice is to simply look for ways to optimize things people already do.

"The best way to think about disruption is to look for opportunities to disrupt. Basically, look at the things that matter to people's lives and see are there better ways to do that," he said.

"That was what we did with AOL. We said there are better ways to get information. There are better ways to communicate. If the internet became pervasive, it would be better," Case said.