AOL Founder Steve Case: Detroit Has All the Ingredients for a Comeback
The Rise of the Rest bus tour kicked off in Detroit yesterday as part of a broader effort to shine a national spotlight on a shift in the geography of high-growth entrepreneurship and the emergence of strong startup ecosystems in the nation’s heartland. The bus tour, sponsored by AOL founder and philanthropist Steve Case’s company Revolution, Google for Entrepreneurs, and UP Global, continues on today to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Nashville.
We spoke with Case on Monday afternoon, and he said besides being in close proximity to one another, each city picked for the tour had an interesting story.
“Detroit was Silicon Valley sixty years ago,” he explained. “It had a great innovation economy and it lost some of its entrepreneurial mojo, but it’s fighting its way back. With Pittsburgh, there’s the legacy of the steel industry which has now shifted to robotics. In Nashville, it’s health care.”
Case first came to Detroit in 2012 as a speaker at the Techonomy conference. His wife, Jean, was also in town last year with a delegation from the Case Foundation. Both were impressed by what they saw.
“We’ve been watching Detroit through the business prism and the foundation prism,” Case said. “I’m optimistic about Detroit. All the ingredients are in place to see it rise again. Part of it is, people in the community recognize that. I’d bet on the next generation of startups leveraging digital technologies to influence big Michigan industries like the car industry. The car has emerged as software on wheels, and Detroit has a structural advantage in understanding the complexity of the industry.”
Case also feels that America is rooting for Detroit’s comeback. “That’s leading to more willingness to move to and invest in Detroit,” he said. “The momentum today versus five or 10 years ago is good.”
Case singled out the efforts of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder in enacting pro-growth policies, and Quicken Loans chair Dan Gilbert in taking the lead in mass investment downtown.
“There’s recognition on the part of big companies that the best way to rebuild is to partner with entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas,” Case added. “Entrepreneurs can help move incumbent companies into the future. It takes everyone working together to make this work.”
Case echoed those comments during a Rise of the Rest fireside chat with Gilbert at Grand Circus on Tuesday, with Google’s Mary Grove serving as moderator. The banter between Case and Gilbert was at times funny. Gilbert told a story about dashing off a “crazy” e-mail to Case after reading an article in which Case had said “92 positive things about Detroit and one negative thing, but the negative thing is what made it into the headline.”
(Gilbert has a history with notable e-mails. He admitted the message to Case was not quite as crazy as his infamous 2010 letter to fans after LeBron James announced he was quitting Gilbert’s Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat—a message that mixed denouncements of James’ “cowardly betrayal” with the oddly whimsical font choice of Comic Sans.)
Each also talked about their start as serial entrepreneurs. Gilbert was just finishing college in 1985 when he got his real estate license and rented a shared office suite in Southfield, MI, to “see how it would go for a summer.” Almost 30 years later, Gilbert now presides over the second-biggest mortgage lender in the country.
For his part, Case said he began to imagine a digital future after reading a book in 1980 called “The Third Wave” that discussed the idea of an electronic society. “I knew 100 percent that it would happen—I never doubted the idea of the Internet,” Case said. In 1985, after an internal naming contest, America Online (AOL) was born. “It took a while, as revolutions often happen in an evolutionary way. We went public in 1992, when we had 200,000 customers. Seven years after that, we had 20 million.”
Gilbert and Case also discussed what they look for in companies they invest in. For Case, it’s a big idea, and for Gilbert, it’s a passionate team of founders.
Gilbert also described his elevator pitch for Detroit: “It truly is an incredible place, but you really have to get here. My words don’t give it justice. It doesn’t matter who we take through the tour [of the Madison Block startup hub downtown], whether it’s Steve Case or Madonna, they’re wowed because it’s not their expectation.”
Case lamented the constant drumbeat of negative press coverage of Detroit: “Everyone has given up on Detroit, but that’s what’s galvanizing—not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. There are lots of people here because they want to be part of the next era of Detroit. America was a startup 250 years ago. Now it’s the leader of the free world because we have the leading economy, which is thanks to entrepreneurs. The whole country can play a role in the continuation of the American story. The last half-century [in Detroit] has not been good, but what’s happening now is a rebuilding of hope and optimism. Entrepreneurs are figuring out what the next great opportunity is.”
A startup pitch contest followed the fireside chat, with a chance to win a $100,000 investment from Case and a free trip to Washington, DC, to pitch Revolution Ventures investors. Hundreds of startups applied to compete; making the cut were Stik.com, Birdhouse for Autism, Locqus, Cribspot, Wisely, SkySpecs, Gridpar, Spincard, AdAdapted, and Detroit Aircraft Corp. Stik.com, a startup that relocated to Detroit from San Francisco in 2012, walked away with the prize.
To see a recap of yesterday’s Detroit events and to follow the rest of the bus tour, check out the hashtag #RiseOfRest on Twitter.