You don’t meet many billionaires on buses. But that proletarian rolling stock became a favorite of Steve Case, the founder of AOL and survivor of the worst corporate merger in history, when he acquired Time Warner in 2001. Beginning in 2014, Case, now an investor and philanthropist, led eight bus tours into the US interior, rolling his bright red motorcoach—packed with investors and guest entrepreneurs like Tory Burch, Mike Bloomberg, and Ted Leonsis—into cities like Detroit, Boise, Chattanooga, and Omaha. He did it to promote a trend he calls “the Rise of the Rest,” which he says will see the coastal dominance of tech unicorns broken by a crop of big startups from the US heartland.
Case logged 11,000 miles on his bus trip, until the pandemic put a stop to it, visiting 43 cities. In each one, he met with local leaders and investors, toured local enterprises, and held a Shark Tank-style pitch contest, sinking $100,000 into the most promising startup. Case’s own venture company, Revolution, also started a $150 million investment fund in 2017 to seed regional startups. It did a second fund in 2019. The experience solidified his hunch that within the next 10 years, the biggest tech companies would come not from Silicon Valley, or even New York or Seattle, but from the boondocks. Innovation, he believes, is alive and well in the sticks.
Case has a new book, Rise of the Rest, documenting his passion for fostering US innovation between the coasts—a strong second act to carpet-bombing that same terrain with AOL CD-ROMs. I was eager to quiz him on his insistence that tech strongholds could flourish in the heartland. We also talked about the current slowdown in tech investment, the double-edged sword of working from home, and hitting the off button on his relationship with J. D. Vance, who went from running Case’s venture fund to running for Senate with Donald Trump’s endorsement.