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Advice on Growing a Small Business from AOL Founder Steve Case

By Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

Investor, advocate and AOL Founder Steve Case started the Rise of the Rest project to shed light on enterprising entrepreneurs, inventors and business owners working outside the heavily moneyed areas of California, New York and Massachusetts. “There are great entrepreneurs all over the country,” Case said on a tour around the nation this spring. “I’m trying to get them more media and more investor attention.” He also is working on economic policy to benefit smaller enterprises, and was an ardent supporter of the federal JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, which is actually half a dozen pieces of legislation intended to improve access to capital, including alternative sources of funding.

During his travels on the Rise of the Rest tour, Case hosted fireside chats to share his thoughts on business growth, including innovation, policy, community and crowdfunding during the current period of innovation, which he calls the Third Wave. Today’s businesses are focused on improving lives by leveraging the Internet (First Wave) and technology and apps built on it (Second Wave). Here are edited excerpts from his stop in Durham, NC.

On doing business in the Third Wave:

The Third Wave will require more perseverance, more partnerships and more policy.

The first lesson of entrepreneurship is perseverance. Three percent of the American people were online when AOL started. It took a decade to get traction, to get people to understand what it was. Today, it’s hard to break through — and the vast majority don’t. You have to hang out and be patient.

Partnerships are going to be a really big deal — strategic partnerships with other entrepreneurs and larger companies. There’s an African proverb: If you want to go quickly, you can go alone. If you want to go far, you need to go together.

And whether people like it or not, business requires coordination with government. I’m trying to play a role in policy. Sometimes it can be challenging, particularly in Washington, DC, trying to get people working together to pass legislation to make sure we remain the most innovative nation — things like crowdfunding and risk capital. There are a lot of things that need to be done to make it easier for women and make it easier for minorities to get access to capital to get going.

On financing your business:

Look for opportunities including crowdfunding — it really is a game-changer — or syndicates of people making smaller investments that, put together, have broader impact. Attend events and network with other people. This allows you to reach out beyond your community.

We need to get people who have some capital to recognize that investing is not just about startups, but is the best way to make sure the community is thriving 25 years from now. Every big company starts as a small company. If you aren’t investing in small business today, you won’t have the big companies tomorrow.

On what gets investors like him excited:

We’re looking for great entrepreneurs with big ideas in unusual places and sometimes in sectors that are not as obvious to everybody that they’re going to be the next big thing. I’m betting on entrepreneurs and investing in entrepreneurs who take a longer-term built-to-last mentality — those who focus on profit and creating value for customers and employees, but also on having a broader impact.

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