For Entrepreneurs Wright and Case, the Past is Prologue
The “playbook for the future” Steve Case describes in his new book The Third Wave isn’t much different from the tactical plan Bob Wright discusses in his new memoir The Wright Stuff for reinventing NBC on cable and the Internet in the long shadow of General Electric over two decades.
Becoming the nation of start-ups Case advocates isn’t much different now than it was then. There is only so much innovation that can be hatched on virgin ground or in someone’s garage. Thriving entrepreneurship depends as much on unwavering support within existing companies and in partnership with them.
Restructuring corporations and retooling their cultures for serial innovation takes time if it happens at all. AOL was never fully understood or absorbed by Time Warner after their disastrous 2000 merger. Wright demonstrated that strategic partnerships are more likely vehicles for demonstrating the value of new ideas. But they still can be thwarted by corporate gatekeepers resistant to change who cower from delivering on their own bold rhetoric.
Both approaches require a potent spark: someone to shepherd visionary ideas and change, defying all forms of opposition. Wright assigns passion, responsibility and control as guiding principles for being a successful catalyst. Case says it requires perseverance, partnering and policy. They both should know.
Wright is the pioneer in corporate clothing who steadfastly pushed past resistance from GE, the media industry and even his own NBC executives and affiliates only to face a new set of adversaries later in developing Autism Speaks with his wife, Suzanne. Case is the homegrown entrepreneur whose AOL in the 1990s and Revolution investments today have been external triggers for transforming industries and behavior.
Wright’s milestones — creating CNBC, MSNBC and a cable culture for broadcasters that reversed affiliate cash compensation and safeguarded the networks’ content ownership rights — are examples of what Case describes as “invoking the urge to explore, question and push the boundaries.” But there must be more corporate tolerance and celebration of what Case calls “the innovator inside of each of us, who refuses to accept the world as it is but still has to live in it and change it from within.”
What we’re finding decades later is that flashes of innovation inside of institutions are not as potent overall because the organization themselves largely remain unchanged. Think Intel. The disruptive innovation that comes from outside free spirits forces transformation that redefines marketplace dynamics and economics. Think Facebook.
The Third Wave that Case predicts — of Internet connectivity deeply integrated in all companies and all things — will only be possible when the dreamers and the doers are in tandem setting and executing new standards of play. And innovation, like the Internet, becomes a force as seamless as electricity. That would make both Steve and Bob happy.