A Case Study: The Man Behind America Online

“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it and you really work hard and you bring the right perspective to it,” says Steve Case. “You shouldn't focus on why you can't do something, which is what most people do. You should focus on why perhaps you can, and be one of the exceptions.”

Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 21, 1956, Steve Case was indeed one of the exceptions. With dreams of becoming a rock star, Case would soon use his entrepreneurial zest to become chairman of the world’s largest media and communications conglomerate. He made history by leading the largest ever merger of two media companies, and will go down in the record books as being one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time.

“I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii,” reflects Case. “I didn't fully appreciate it. Growing up on an island is a little different than most people's childhood experiences, but I really enjoyed it.” With a lawyer for a father and a teacher for a mother, Case had always been groomed to have a stable professional career. However, Case showed an entrepreneurial flair at a young age.

Whether it was starting up a greeting card company or selling newspapers door-to-door when he was ten, Case realized as a boy that he was interested in business. “I think relatively early on I probably was on a path to be more of an entrepreneur, and I think everybody in my family kind of sensed that,” he says. “My father and his brothers were all lawyers, so I think that the expectation was probably for me to grow up to be an attorney, but it never really fascinated me that much. I was more interested in building things.”

Case attended the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu, where he was a member of “The 13-Year Club” for going to that same school from kindergarten through 12th grade. After graduating from high school, Case enrolled in Williams College in Massachusetts, where he studied political science. Once he had obtained his degree, Case went to work as a marketer for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio, and later for PepsiCo in Wichita, Kansas. It wasn’t until Case was 24 years old that he decided to make the move to Washington, D.C., and begin focusing on interactive services.

“It just struck me as obvious that some day consumers would want to decide what they wanted to see and how they wanted to get it, and not just be passive recipients,” says Case. “They wanted to somehow interact and do research on things, or talk to other people or what have you.” It was with that attitude that Case began working as a marketing consultant with Control Video, a company that distributed games for the Atari 2600 using a modem. While the company almost went bankrupt, the opportunity introduced Case to two businessmen who would later play a crucial role in his career.

Manufacturing consultant Jim Kimsey was brought in to save Control Video, but instead wound up hiring Case and promoting him to vice president of marketing in his own company, Quantum Computer Services. When Kimsey retired in 1991, Case took his place as CEO. Along with programmer Marc Seriff, Case set about changing the company’s strategy. Under Case, Quantum Computer Services began focusing on creating private label online services for PC companies and bundling that software for use with their PCs. After the success of Quantum Link, Apple Link and PC-Link for the Commodore 64, Apple and IBM respectively, Case changed the company name to America Online in 1991. It would be the start of not only a lengthy career, but also a successful one that would revolutionize an entire industry.

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