Facebook (fb), Google (googl), and Twitter (twtr) are all based on the West Coast, as most big tech companies seem to be. But America Online, the company which once served the functional equivalent of all three combined, came out of Northern Virginia. Being far removed from Silicon Valley’s startup culture was, according to AOL co-founder and former CEO Steve Case, a key part of the company’s growth into one of the top consumer tech brands in the world.
“I think we had a better sense of how real people were thinking about the internet,” Case tells Fortune’s Aaron Task on our new podcast Fortune Unfiltered. “We were, I think, more in touch with the views on main street because it wasn’t just about what technology enabled. It was how people could then integrate that in their lives.”
Hear the whole interview below:
AOL’s popularity stemmed largely from the accessibility of its services. At a time when the tech companies many now take for granted didn’t exist or were just getting off the ground, Case recognized the importance of making his software easy to use. He would tell his employees that the benchmark user was his mom: if she could use whatever service AOL was making, it was good to go. Case also recounts how his experience at Procter & Gamble (pg) early in his career taught him the value of giving free samples, leading to AOL’s decision to mail all those free CDs during the 1990’s internet boom.
Now, more than a decade removed from AOL Time Warner, the ill-fated company that came out of AOL’s $164 billion merger with Time Warner (twx), Case is again looking to the future. His new book, The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future, came out in April.
The premise, as Case described on Fortune Unfiltered, is that technological progress is the product of three waves: building the internet and getting everyone connected to it, building apps and services on top of the internet, and now “integrating the internet in much more seamless and pervasive ways throughout our lives.”
Check http://fortune.com/podcasts for more of episodes of Fortune Unfiltered, including Beth Comstock and Gary Vaynerchuk.
Case has also kept himself busy with his investment firm, Revolution Growth. In a nod to AOL’s outsider roots, Case and his team are taking a five-city bus tour – dubbed “Rise of the Rest – in early October to search for startups outside coastal cities, which Case notes suck up the overwhelming majority of venture funding.
“We’re just trying to tell the stories of these great entrepreneurs building great companies…and do what we can to help create more of a network density, more momentum, more sense of possibility in these cities,” Case said.