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‘Startups are the seed corn’: Steve Case stumps for community building in Philly

The cofounder of AOL came to Philly for an event at 1776. Here's what stood out.

1776 co-CEO Anthony Maher interviews investor Steve Case, April 5, 2018. (Photo by Roberto Torres)
The future will look grim for Philadelphia, still the poorest big city in the country, unless a growth-focused community helps startups swell to become the massive employers of the future.

That was the call to arms issued by investor and technologist Steve Case, the AOL cofounder who came to Philly on Thursday for a conversation with 1776 co-CEO Anthony Maher. The talk was featured as part of 1776’s merger completion with Benjamin’s Desk. The event packed investors, stakeholders and entrepreneurs at the company’s Powelton Avenue campus in West Philly.

“If you care about Philly, the best thing you can do is build a strong community that supports great startups that will be the big companies of the future, hire thousands in the city and create supply chain ecosystems,” Case said. “If not, your big companies will be struggling and you won’t have build anything to replace it.”

Case, who brought his Rise of the Rest bus tour to Philly in 2015 and invested $100,000 in local startup Scholly, reminded the audience that over half of the Fortune 500 companies turn over every couple decades and startups are “the seed corn” of future landscape changes.

For 1776, the event was a watershed moment: The sold-out talk also served to announce 1776’s new, unified branding. See the little kite in the number six? It’s a tribute of sorts to the old brand, founded in 2012 by Houwzer’s Mike Maher and 1776 co-CEO Jennifer Maher.

In October, the kite-and-key company merged with the D.C.-based incubator in a bid to “help entrepreneurs succeed and to reach their maximum potential” through a mix of office space, event programming and connections to investors and mentors. The combined company now has 10 campuses across the Northeast, with plans to expand its reach to cities like Baltimore and Brooklyn, the latter by way of a forthcoming location inside Brooklyn Navy Yard (after plans there were put on hold).

In his chat with Maher, Case recalled how drastically different the context of his entrepreneurial journey was: Building AOL in the 1980s even raised red flags with the investor’s parents, who feared the “online company” wouldn’t make it.

“People were online, on average, an hour a week,” said Case. “I was fascinated with the idea of internet but there was no internet companies to go work for. It took longer than we expected I expected for the building to build, with scary moments.”

Here are a few more choice Case quotes from the event:

On Philly’s tech ecosystem since he was last here:

“It’s no question there’s a lot of momentum. Philly is rising and there is some progress. The focus of Penn and other universities, and Comcast in entrepreneurship is important. That kind of thing helps build frameworks that allows communities to thrive. The most important thing your’e doing now is to breaking down how fragmented, siloed communities can become.”

On what got him through the tough times:

“A mix of passion and stubbornness. I really believed in the idea of Internet even though people said it would work. There will always be roadblocks and you either have to figure out how to get past them, around them or break them down. But you can’t stop.”

On how communities need to keep growing:

“This country is not that old — 250 years ago, America was a startup, an idea that almost didn’t make it. What we did was lead the way. From an idea to being the leading country of the world. It took hard work led by entrepreneurs who drove agricultural, industrial and tech revolutions. It’s incumbent upon on all of us to continue to do those crazy ideas that all start as just big ideas. Philadelphia is well positioned but it’s not going to be handed to you.”


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