AOL’s Steve Case says Madison ‘is on the rise’

AOL co-founder Steve Case says “Madison really is on the rise,” but the capital city has a lot more collaborative work ahead if it wants to come out on top.

Case, who keynoted the Madison chamber’s IceBreaker luncheon at the Kohl Center, credited Madison for trying to turn the city into a tech hub. But several other cities are trying to do the same thing, he said, so the city’s business community needs to work together and lead “the third wave” of entrepreneurship.

“The momentum in Madison is impressive,” he said. “But I don’t know, it’s like the second or third inning.”

The 57-year-old’s new book is called “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.”

Case was at the forefront of the first wave, back when nobody knew what the Internet was “and frankly, nobody cared.” The screeching dial-up sounds of the early Internet, he joked, sounded like “cha ching, cha ching” to him.

The second wave had the vast majority of people connect to the internet, he said. That’s when now-famous names such as Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin began building the services that are nearly ubiquitous today.

But the third wave is where Madison has a chance to stand out, he said. That’s when innovative companies will integrate the Internet in “seamless and pervasive ways throughout our lives.”

Those companies are already changing how people learn, how they stay healthy and how they use energy sources. And they’re more likely to spring up outside of the coasts, which he called “the rise of the rest.”

Madison needs to take several steps to develop entrepreneurs, he said, key among them developing a culture where it’s OK for a startup to fail. Airbnb sounded like a “stupid idea” until it wasn’t, he pointed out. And more established companies also need to be leading innovation efforts, he said, so they aren’t killed by a disruptive technology like Kodak was with the digital camera.

“Are you on the side that’s driving that change and trying to benefit from that change?” he asked. “Or are you on the side of trying to slow it down?”

City leaders also need to make sure there’s no brain drain — and boomerang back any young talent that’s left the city for Silicon Valley. That’s already happening at the tech giant Epic, which is now at about 10,000 employees, but Case said leaders need to continue to “create a sense of possibility.”

Epic’s rise and growing Madison startups will help spread that message to outside venture capitalists, who’ll be more willing to take flights to Madison, he said.

But another crucial element, Case said, is ensuring the community supports entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds. Crowdfunding has helped on that end, giving female and minority entrepreneurs a bigger chance of getting funding than they would have venture capitalists.

Yet the city needs to make sure everyone in its community can “take that idea and run with it.”

“It’s up to you, really,” Case said. “It is within your control.”

— By Polo Rocha,