Skift Take

AOL co-founder Steve Case never lost his passion for startups. His new book reminds us that innovation can thrive anywhere in America outside of New York and Silicon Valley and help reimagine U.S. cities big and small. Take note, travel industry.

Steve Case is no stranger to starting up a company. In the early 1990s, he helped to co-found America Online, later renamed AOL, a service that for the first time allowed millions of people access to the the internet. It was a monumental shift for the world, one whose significance sometimes gets lost in today’s ubiquity of iPhones and binge streaming. Case went on to become chairman of AOL Time Warner after a tumultuous merger, but he eventually left Big Media behind and all its attendant cynicism to focus his energies on the optimism of startups — which brings us to his latest project.

Case’s new book, “The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places Are Building the New American Dream” (Avid Reader Press), is out today.

The book threads together anecdotes from his visits to more than 40 U.S. cities that have been part of an initiative of the same name, The Rise of the Rest, launched in 2014 by Case’s company Revolution to identify and juice startups outside of Silicon Valley with seed funding from Revolution. Case traveled for years to these cities on a bus or in a recreational vehicle, often with his wife Jean. On each of these multiple bus tours, Case and his team visited five cities in five days and invested at least $500,000 in startups after pitch competitions. The initiative is still ongoing, evolving further into two $150 million seed funds backed by Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, Sara Blakely, Tory Burch, Ray Dalio, Henry Kravis and others. 

The book’s premise is pretty simple: Shine a light on young companies working to transform cities in between the coasts, places like Chattanooga, Tulsa, York, Pennsylvania, Omaha, Green Bay, and Salt Lake City. Case wants you to know that talent is equally distributed but often opportunity is not. He devotes a chapter to the “Diversity Imperative.”

While Case’s road trips began well before Covid and continued after, the pandemic provides a whole new context for a book like this, one about startups driving local economies when many cities are using the two-year pause to rethink their futures in new ways. And, of course, the new allure of remote working is added into this mix.

Skift caught up with Case recently and, naturally, we wanted to know about what travel executives should take away from his book.

“I think travel executives should recognize that innovation is everywhere. With talent migrating across the country, the increase in remote work, and the growth of robust startup communities outside of Silicon Valley attracting large numbers of young, creative, tech talent, there is an opportunity for travel executives to reach new customers where they are,” Case told Skift.

“Additionally, and I think readers of your publication are clued into this, the travel industry is being disrupted at a rapid clip. Corporations need to be attackers, not defenders, finding ways to adopt new technologies, work with startups and leverage exciting new products and services to stay ahead of the disruption. Hospitality and transportation is an exciting space in which to invest—we are excited about and invested in companies like Mint House, Placemakr, Collective Retreats, and Hermeus to name just a few.”

During one of his trips, Case spent some time with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and writes about him in the book.

“When I mentioned my prediction that there would be dozens of tech hub cities in the United States, not just a few more,” Case writes, “Brian laughed. ‘I had in my head hundreds of cities, maybe, and I”m thinking around the world. So, I think it’s going to be extremely distributed. The place to be will be the internet. You can access it anywhere.'”

Chesky also offered this about how cities will need to compete: “The cities that will win will be the cities that most welcome talent. In a world with more mobility, it’s actually easier (to attract talent.)”

The new wave of distributed workers will help cities attract talent, and startups will find new sources of funding in these cities, whether it is through connections to universities and their hunger for research, or larger, incumbent companies in those places. And venture capital will follow to help create what Case calls “the ecosystem wheel” in those local communities. The spokes of that wheel are startups, investors, universities, government, startup support groups, and the local media.

Case points out that more than 1,400 new VC firms have been created in the past decade outside of traditional hubs in Silicon Valley and New York. Still, more work needs to be done, with 75 percent of VC funding still flowing to New York, California, and Massachusetts.

The Rise of the Rest bus pulling into Atlanta as part of Steve Case’s journey through America scouting the next great innovators. Source: Revolution.

Case said his goal was to make sure to end the cycle of money flowing to the same kinds of people, in the same places, for the same ideas. He writes about the former winners of the Atlanta pitch competition — Jewel Burks and Jason Crain, the Black co-founders of PartPic, which they created while working for a vehicle repair company. PartPic allowed repair professionals to save loads of time by using a technology to identify key parts using smartphone photos. It was later sold to Amazon.

In his first book, “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future,” published right before Donald Trump was elected president, Case sounded the warning that America could lose its status as the most entrepreneurial nation in the world. The new book builds on that reality by offering hope that the U.S. can stay on top by “practicing the art of the possibility.”

“Just as they helped build America in its first two centuries, entrepreneurs can once again help lead the way,” writes Case.

These days Case can no longer claim the mantle of that boyish visionary who changed the world forever with AOL. He turned 64 this summer. But Case has managed to maintain the same optimism of a kid entrepreneur with a killer idea. Asked what he hopes the larger message of the new book will be, Case admits to sounding a bit aspirational with his answer. Still, he offers that for those feeling left out and left behind, he hopes that the possibility of these new opportunities he was witnessed over the past decade, even in the farthest corners of the U.S., will “help pull together a divided nation.”

DISCLOSURE: Skift President Carolyn Kremins sits on the board of Exclusive Resorts, owned by Case’s company Revolution.

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Tags: airbnb, AOL, entrepreneurs, innovation, startups, Steve Case, technology, travel technology

Photo credit: Entrepreneur Steve Case at the University of Nebraska Innovation Campus, demoing new digital surgical equipment as part of his Rise of the Rest bus tour. Revolution

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