The central idea of Walter Isaacson’s new book, “The Innovators,” is this: Innovation is a team sport.
Isaacson doesn’t waste any time making this point. He gets right to it in the first paragraph of the first page: “Most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively.” He notes that there were “a lot of fascinating people,” and goes on to tell the stories of “these pioneers, hackers, investors and entrepreneurs” — but makes it clear early on that “The Innovators” is a “narrative of how they collaborated and why their ability to work as teams made them even more creative.”
Isaacson’s most recent book — the massive bestseller “Steve Jobs” — told the fascinating (and complex) tale of our generation’s most iconic entrepreneur. But the focus on Steve may have left a lot of budding entrepreneurs thinking the path to success was about what they might do. In fact, while passionate leadership is of course important — indeed, essential — ultimately, it is the work of teams that moves things forward.
I’m reminded of the African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone — but if you want to go far, you must go together.” As Isaacson notes when he explains “how the technology revolution was fashioned,” the real progress came from “collaborative creativity” — people working together, building on each other’s ideas, and pushing innovation forward.
Isaacson devotes a chapter to the “Online” revolution, including the story of the evolution of AOL. He correctly notes that the central idea that animated AOL was community — people interacting with each other. These early adopters weren’t just consumers, they were contributors — and were the pioneers who helped pave the path forward. When we started the company in 1985, only three percent of people were online, and they were only online an hour a week. When we said we wanted to get America online, we were dead serious.
It took more than a decade before we got traction. Early on, it became clear that we couldn’t go it alone. We needed to assemble a tapestry of alliances to build the Internet and make it part of everyday life. We needed the PC manufacturers to develop consumer-friendly and affordable PCs. We needed them to build modems into PCs, so they would go from being a “peripheral” device to a central, compelling element that helped usher in a new era of connecting to the world. We needed communications networks to create new low-cost ways to connect, so user fees would drop from $10 per hour to less than 10 cents an hour. We needed software designers to create compelling graphical interfaces, to make the Internet accessible to the masses. We needed content companies to offer compelling services. (Ironically, I first met Isaacson more than 20 years ago, when he headed the new media efforts for Time Inc., and we struck a deal to bring Time Magazine onto AOL.)
The bottom line is that we all needed to do our part to usher in the Internet age.
But “The Innovators” is not just a tale of the past, it’s a road map for the future. This week, I’m taking a bus trip across middle America — starting in Madison, Wis., and ending in St. Louis, Mo., — to see how innovation is blossoming in places outside of Silicon Valley or New York. I call it the “Rise of the Rest Tour,” and it’s the second time I’ve made such a trip this year. (You can follow our tour at RiseOfTheRest.com). What I see in these places is something right out of Isaacson’s book: Innovation booming and communities blooming because of collaborative efforts between people with ideas, teams they assemble, local universities and colleges, budding accelerators and tech hubs, forward-thinking policy makers and more.
Yes, every now and then we find a company that truly is a one-person show. But the ones I feel the most excited about, the ones that have the best shot of going far, are collaborative efforts that have a great team and a great community behind them.
The lessons Isaacson conveys about the role of collaboration are not just important as history lessons, but as guideposts for today’s innovators — and an important guidebook for the next wave of entrepreneurs.
Steve Case is chairman and CEO of Revolution, a Washington, D.C.-based venture capital firm, co-founder of AOL, chairman of Up Global, a member of the President’s Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship, and chairman of the Case Foundation. Reach him @SteveCase.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.