Steve Case on the Opportunities for Future Entrepreneurs

One of the easiest ways to look foolish is to start making predictions about the future–just ask those who said online shopping was a passing fad. And before the iPhone launched eight years ago, how many (besides maybe Steve Jobs) would have guessed that mobile apps would become a $35 billion industry?

But when Steve Case, Peter Diamandis, Esther Dyson, and other forward thinkers offer their thoughts about the future of entrepreneurship, you’d be a fool not to listen. Among their predictions: We’ll see even grander and more ambitious ventures from entrepreneurs in the coming years. (And, presumably, fewer Kickstarter campaigns of the making-potato-salad ilk.) Some of their other projections feel less futuristic and more like a return to some of the practices (promoting strong values and building smart partnerships) that have made companies great in the past.

And whether or not you agree with these visions, there’s one sure way to know what’s coming down the pike. As management guru Peter Drucker liked to say, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

In the future, entrepreneurship will be more of a team sport, says AOL co-founder Steve Case. Case is chairman of Up Global, a nonprofit collaboration of the Startup America Partnership and Startup Weekend whose mission is to better the world by fostering startups. Tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, he says, will tackle problems that are more complex–and inherently more challenging. To accomplish those increasingly lofty goals, they may need more teamwork along the way.

–As told to Diana Ransom and Liz Welch.

What does the future of entrepreneurship hold?

I think it’s going to be very bright. In the past 25 years or so, there’s been a lot of innovation in a lot of different parts of our lives: how we get information, how we communicate, and how we buy products. But in the next 25 years, there’s going to be an equal if not greater amount of innovation in arguably more essential parts of our lives: how we stay healthy, how we learn, how we get around, how we consume energy. Things that are important parts of our lives but also really significant sectors of the economy. That’s where the next wave of innovation will be.

What future challenges will founders face?

There are different kinds of entrepreneurs doing different kinds of things, so it’s hard to generalize, but it starts with having a compelling product. Then how do you assemble a team to take that idea and put it into action and scale it into a significant sustainable business?

I think there are also going to be some unique and somewhat complex challenges for this next wave of entrepreneurs who are revolutionizing health care or education. That is going to require a higher degree of perseverance. It will also require building alliances with other companies or institutions, as well as engaging on the policy side with government. The opportunities are significant, but it’s going to require a different skill set. Some things that are important to businesses–like product, people, and passion–will remain the same. Some new things–partnerships, policy, perseverance–are going to become more important as well.

The model in this last wave–particularly for the companies focused on apps–was, you launch your app, and within a year, you’d either get a lot of traction or you wouldn’t. If you got traction, you’d build on that. If you didn’t, you’d do something else. You got a near instantaneous market reaction. In this next wave, it’s going to take longer to really have impact.

Why do you think there will be more complex challenges? Why not more apps?

There will be more apps. Some of that will continue. So if you want to come up with a new app, you can continue to focus on that. And many people will. But I think another group of companies and innovations will start emerging, which does require a different strategy.

You’ve said before that entrepreneurs of the future will be less able to go it alone. Why?

There are certainly some who could potentially go it alone. But entrepreneurship is a team sport. One person can do only so much. To really have a broad impact, it comes down to how you build the team around you to get the leverage and impact at the scale that you want.

Even though there were some iconic entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs, who deservedly got a lot of attention, the real breakthroughs happen through teams. That has been the case for most of the big entrepreneurial success stories, and I think it will be even more the case for this next wave of companies. The process of changing how kids learn in school is complicated and multifaceted. You can’t just sit at your computer and make it happen. That’s going to require a team.

What’s your best advice for future entrepreneurs?

Make sure you’re identifying a big problem that needs to be solved or an opportunity that needs to be seized–and go for it. I don’t mean any disrespect to entrepreneurs who choose to do something narrower, but I’d encourage people to swing for the fences. Those are tougher problems, but I think they’re more important problems and also the problems that create more opportunities. And ultimately, you have the potential to build a significant business with the potential to have a positive impact on millions of people’s lives.

Take a longer-term, built-to-last view. And recognize that you can’t go it alone, that you need to build a team and strategic partnerships. If you do that successfully, you have the ability to build a great company you can be proud of, and one that has a powerful impact on society.

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