FORTUNE -- It comes as a wee shock that Steve Case is 54 years old. America Online, where he was CEO, went public 20 years ago, after all. That means that back in the Internet’s Paleolithic Era, Case was about the same age as Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey is today. Not quite the pup that Mark Zuckerberg was when he founded Facebook, but a young gun all the same.
That, as they say, was then. Now, Case is a trim and only slightly graying senior statesman of the technology industry. Having survived the colossal screw-up that was the 2001 AOL-Time Warner merger -- Fortune is part of Time Warner, and more than a few of my longer-serving colleagues will wince simply to read the name of that long-since-deconstructed mess -- Case today is a venture capitalist, philanthropist and policy wonk.
He could merely be leading a life of leisure: He and his wife Jean are proud owners of a winery in Virginia. Indeed, in the years following his 2003 departure as chairman of the media behemoth he orchestrated as the great Internet bubble was bursting, Case went relatively quiet. Lately he’s out traveling the country, expounding on how to create jobs, investable trends in the tech world and even, upon request, the concerns of big media.
“There are two kinds of companies: attackers and defenders,” Case said Thursday, during an interview on a sunny hotel terrace in Menlo Park, Calif., where he was visiting. “Entrepreneurs are attackers, and people in Fortune 500 companies are defenders,” he said. It’s hard to argue with that, but Case twisted the knife for good measure. Business schools teach their students to “de-risk,” he said. After all, the companies they join have the most to defend, while “innovation will come from the attackers.”
The attacker/defender conversation came up on the subject of what do about the big media companies, like the one he headed. Case didn’t offer much hope.
Instead, he places his hope in startups, which is why he was a proponent of the recently enacted JOBS Act. The legislation lowers reporting requirements for small, newly public companies, making it easier for them to conduct IPOs, which people like Case believes are a prime driver of company formation, wealth creation and employment. Encouraging IPOs, said Case, discourages entrepreneurs from thinking small, from building features rather than companies. Facilitating earlier IPOs is “an important option” for young companies, he said, suggesting it will foster a “mindset of ‘built to last’ rather than ‘built to flip.’”
He holds out AOL (aol), the ultimate roller-coaster startup, as a shining example. “The IPO market has transformed dramatically, and not in a helpful way,” said Case. “When AOL went public 20 years ago it raised $10 million dollars at a market value of $70 million. Eight years later it was worth $150 billion.” (Today, what’s left is valued at about $3 billion, but that’s another matter.)
To his credit, Case puts his money where his assertions. His Revolution Ventures, an early-stage VC fund drawn from his personal wealth, took an early stake in LivingSocial, the Groupon (grpn) competitor that has yet to go public. His newer, $450-million Revolution Growth fund, which raised money from institutional investors, takes sizeable stakes in older companies. Two that get Case’s juices flowing are FedBid, an online exchange for vendors selling to the government, and Echo360, a software provider helping 600 universities distribute videos of lectures to students.
The geographic diversity of Echo360’s clients is a fitting metaphor for Case’s efforts. While he partners with traditional Silicon Valley VC firms, he is a walking advertisement for the hopes and dreams of entrepreneurs who want to believe innovation can be funded beyond Sand Hill Road (where we happened to be meeting). Case says his investment arms, like his philanthropic organization, the Case Foundation, are centered around “people and ideas that can change the world.”
One thing is clear about Case, who has seen his ups and downs: He sees himself as an attacker, not a defender. By words and deeds, he seems to have plenty of ambition remaining at his ripe old age as well.
Years ago, Adam Lashinsky wrote about Steve Case, when he was more charitably inclined to believe in the potential of big media.