Billionaire investor Steve Case said a book he read in 1980 set him on the path to founding AOL, and it still influences him today

Steve Case is the founding CEO of AOL and the venture capital firm Revolution.

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Steve Case is the founding CEO of AOL and the venture capital firm Revolution.
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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

  • Steve Case is the billionaire founding CEO of AOL and the head of Washington, DC-based venture-capital firm Revolution.
  • Case said that the 1980 book “The Third Wave” convinced him the world was on the verge of a digital revolution.
  • He said this is what fueled him in the early days of AOL, and influenced his current work through his investment firm Revolution’s “Rise of the Rest” initiative.

Not long before his graduation from Williams College in 1980, Steve Case picked up a copy of Alvin Toffler’s book “The Third Wave.”

Toffler was a journalist and activist who took on the role of futurist with his bestseller “Future Shock” in 1970, and his new book made a bold proclamation: Humanity had gone through an agricultural wave and an industrial wave, but was on the brink of what could only be described as “The Third Wave.” It would see “the death of industrialization and the rise of a new civilization.”

Over nearly 500 pages, Toffler explained his thesis for what this civilization would look like, but the most exciting elements for Case concerned the rise of communities through computers. It was easy to dismiss the book as not much more than an interesting, fantastical read.

“But I read that and I knew he was right,” Case said in an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “This Is Success.” “I knew it was going to happen. I just knew it.” Case decided he was going to help make it happen. And he did, as the founding CEO of AOL, the first public internet company.

Ushering in the Third Wave

Toffler’s prediction of achieving the “first truly humane civilization in recorded history” seems quaint, and some of his theories on how families and nations will change can get a bit wild, but past that and some fanciful language, his predictions about communication were quite prescient.

He wrote that “cheap mini-computers are about to invade the American home” and that a home would become an “electronic cottage.” Offices would run on computer communication, he predicted, and that means computers linked through telecommunications would allow people to work from home. And aside from work, this new label of connectivity would lead to the formation of new communities that can be dispersed around the world.

Toffler wrote:

“As advanced communications proliferate and we begin to shift work back into the electronic cottage, we will encourage this new dual focus, breeding large numbers of people who remain reasonably close to home, who migrate less often, who travel more perhaps for pleasure but far less often for business – while their minds and messages range across the entire planet and into outer space as well.”

He did not try to predict the specifics of what this technology would look like, but that’s where creative entrepreneurs like Case could come in.

Case told Business Insider that when he was applying to jobs after college, he would parrot Toffler in his cover letters, saying the world was on the brink of a digital age. Making it stranger to potential employers was the fact it was coming from a political science major. “They’re, like, what is he talking about? So most of those letters went unanswered,” he said.

Case was motivated by the vision of a new digital age he had in his early 20s, inspired by Alvin Toffler's

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Case was motivated by the vision of a new digital age he had in his early 20s, inspired by Alvin Toffler’s “The Third Wave.”
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Courtesy of Steve Case

“But it was something that was intriguing to me. And I just thought it would be important, and I wanted to be part of it, and wanted to figure out ways to popularize it.”

Case worked for Procter & Gamble and then Pizza Hut for a few years before landing his first tech job, and then in 1985 he, Jim Kimsey, Marc Seriff, and Bill von Meister launched Quantum Computer Services, which would become America Online in 1991.

Case, who left AOL in 2005, has been spending the last five years working on the “Rise of the Rest” initiative, which is based on his own vision of the future. He had the chance to thank Toffler before Toffler died in 2016, and he named his own book “The Third Wave” (published a couple months before Toffler’s death) in tribute.

To Case, AOL marked the first wave of the internet, the rise of social marked the second wave, and now we’re at the forefront of the third wave. Case predicts that Silicon Valley will lose some of its central importance in this next wave of internet companies, where the “internet of things” essentially becomes the internet of everything, and revolutionizes industries like agriculture and transportation. It’s why he and his team have been investing millions of dollars across 38 American cities whose startup scenes have typically been overlooked.

He said his work now reminds him of the early years of AOL.

“I recognize a lot of people are skeptical, but we hope to prove them wrong, and we believe we will prove them wrong, and maybe there’s some part of my personality that’s sort of, when people say it can’t be done, that’s sort of the challenge, and say, ‘OK, well, we’ll see about that,'” he said.

Listen to the full episode and subscribe to “This Is Success” on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app.