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Remembering AOL's 'Deal of the Century'

Cable history buffs will turn directly to Chapter 9, titled "A Matter of Trust," the longest chapter in Steve Case's book The Third Wave,hoping for some insights into the $163 billion merger of Time Warner into Case's America Online in 2000. They'll know that the deal quickly foundered, costing chairman/CEO Jerry Levin his job, vice chair Ted Turner (Time Warner's largest shareholder at that time) billions of dollars in lost value; and even giving Case a quick shove to the exit.

Case insists that the book, published this week, is not a memoir, but rather an upbeat guide to entrepreneurial opportunities. He quickly acknowledges that his book deliberately has the identical title as Alvin Toffler's landmark 1980 "Third Wave," which influenced Case's career goals when he graduated from college that year. And he delivers plenty of advice and ideas about launching a business, many of them appropriate to telecom and tech start-ups in cable-related ventures, such as the Internet of Things and tele-health.

Whereas Toffler's Information Age "wave" followed the centuries-long Agricultural and Industrial eras, Case's short chronology starts with "Building the Internet" (1985-1999, although he cites  earlier tech precursors) the "App Economy and Mobile Revolution" (2000-2015) and the upcoming "Internet of Everything." Interspersed with frequent - but not very deep - career disclosures, Case offers valuable tips about business-building in the new era, such as "the three P's": partnerships, policy and perseverance.    

To augment such useful tutorials, the book is laced with personal and some juicy remembrances of his youthful flings with cable and early online ventures.  The little-told story about efforts to persuade John Malone of Telecommunications Inc. to invest in AOL in the early '90s typically demonstrates Case's determination.  AOL wanted both money and a future broadband alternative to its dial-up system.  According to Case, Paul Allen was on the verge of becoming a 20% owner of AOL stock, and Microsoft was threatening with its impending Microsoft Network (MSN).   Case says he made a sweetheart offer to Malone, who was also being courted by Microsoft's Bill Gates to embrace MSN.

Ultimately, Malone ignored AOL and also walked away from MSN. Case says that much later Malone said he regretted missing out on the 20-fold AOL stock appreciation during the dot-com bonanza.

As for the stealthy Time Warner deal, there are few revelations.  Case acknowledges that with its cash trove and market valuation in late 1999, AOL scouted many acquisition possibilities, including Disney, AT&T (again for its broadband), Electronic Arts (for its games) and eBay.  In one of the few "juicy" tidbits, he describes how eBay CEO Meg Whitman "was waiting in adjacent conference room at our headquarters in Virginia" as a back-up deal if "the negotiation deteriorated with Time Warner."  He cites encouraging early chats with Turner and Case's own "absolute belief" that the deal would have worked out if the boom market had continued for a few more years than it did.

The rest of the chapter goes into the subsequent dysfunction of the merger, picking on the culture clashes and Time Warner's insular strategy.  He shares a few stories about his growing frustration with Levin, who held the reigns although Case was the nominal chairman, and with the fallout as Levin was shoved aside.  Case explains why former MTV chief Bob Pittman, briefly considered for the top TW job, was too short-sighted and that Dick Parsons, who eventually took to job, lacked vision.  Of course, as he has said in interviews and speeches, Case put most of the subsequent blame for the deal's ultimate failure on Parson's reorganization of the company. The restructuring  put Don Logan, a long-time Time Inc. magazine executive, in charge of AOL and Time Warner Cable, where he shunned  the online unit. Case skewers Logan for killing what Case believes were ahead-of-their-time projects, such as a pre-Skype communications feature because the existing cable group wanted to push the triple-play.

The book includes the requisite name dropping, from Ahmet Ertegun of Warner Music to "Barry" Obama, a Honolulu high-schoolmate and later the President who invited Case onto several federal entrepreneurial/start-up initiatives. Even Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is mentioned, although in a much later encounter (2015), when - reflecting on the core strengths of different companies - Roberts said, "The culture is the one thing you've got to get right."

And that concept, of course, is one of the underlying messages that Case seeks to promote throughout this self-help volume. After he gets the personal stories out of his system, Case emphasizes the tools that entrepreneurs should use. For example,  he believes that most future businesses will be touched by regulation, which is why "policy" is one of his building blocks. 

Whether it's Über dealing with local transportation rules, drones facing multiple levels of oversight or health and communications regulations, he encourages awareness of the growing role of government, which he considers a necessary burden.  Case offers tips about fund raising in an ecosystems with investment constraints (again: some policy-driven). There are plenty of marketing insights, drawing from his youthful experience as a Pizza Hut development manager, which involved taste-testing pizzas around the country. Barely a decade later, Case was calculating how AOL could run a guerrilla action that leveraged the online hubris of competitor Prodigy (the IBM/CBS/Sears venture).

Case engages in some deserved chest-thumping for his Revolution venture capital project and for the "Rise-of-the-Rest" campaign to encourage entrepreneurship in communities of all kinds -not just in Silicon Valley, the Boston area, New York and the other digital-magnet towns.  And he encourages curiosity and continuing dedication - even when it seems to fail.  He cites his own passion for new digital media after he read Toffler's "Third Wave": Case applied unsuccessfully to graduate business schools with a letter citing his firm belief that "innovations in telecommunications (especially two-way cable systems) will result in our television sets become in an information lifeline...."

Recognizing the short-attention-span community that he helped create, Case's conclusion starts with a shrug, "I won't take offence ...if you've decided to skim this book or skip to the end."  In truth, you can absorb this slim book on short flight: a shuttle along the coasts; or half-way to Denver from anywhere. (And that's even if you linger over photos of the victorious arm waves by Levin and Case on that momentous January 2000 morning.) 

The new "Third Wave" provides perspective for those of us who lived through the telecom rollercoaster of that era plus useful ideas for entrepreneurs who will create the next wave of things we didn't know we couldn't live without.