It’s not every day you have a chance to sit down with the man who made the Internet mainstream.

When the Startup America Partnership told me Steve Case (co-founder of AOL, chair of the Startup America Partnership and CEO of Revolution) wanted to sit down and meet with NC startups, I organized a way to make it happen. As an Internet geek who used AOL to learn HTML and play Monopoly with people across the globe, I was personally thrilled.

We invited 20 Startup NC companies (randomly selecting from the list of NC startups registered for the Startup America Partnership) and chose a location for breakfast in the hotel Steve was staying in while in town. The rest was all Steve and the entrepreneurs.

In attendance were entrepreneurs representing Argyle Social, Compost Now, icimo, LiPi, LocalSense, RXAnalytics, Tiger Analytics, and WaterplayUSA, among others. The group ranged from those with barely a prototype to others with funding and strong revenue growth.

One of the entrepreneurs there told Steve he met his wife on AOL (and that they’re still happily married). I can only imagine how many used those 1,000 free hour AOL CDs to get online (and then cancel just before their trial expired) in the 1990s, just like I did.

On the Triangle entrepreneurial ecosystem
Steve believes the Triangle is currently in the middle tier of the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystems, with the potential to rise into the top tier. All of the “natural resources” (talent, capital, universities, established companies, etc.) are here, but it will be up to every facet of our entrepreneurial community to take those natural resources and intelligently parlay them into the next big things. And an understanding that what got us here won’t get us there.

Learning from other Entrepreneurs
Like every good entrepreneur, Steve asks smart questions. He wanted to learn, directly from the entrepreneurs, what startups in NC are struggling with the most. Every entrepreneur went around the room and talked about their biggest challenges and three recurring themes emerged: access to more capital, more customers, and more talent. Steve directly addressed his opinions on capital and talent.

Capital (The Rise of the Rest)
Steve believes Silicon Valley will probably always be the country’s most vibrant and important startup ecosystem, but that as other ecosystems across the country grow and become more vibrant, there will be a “rise of the rest” of the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystems. This will lead to more successful startups and a more equal disbursement of capital across the entire country. He believes this so strongly that Revolution plans to make 80% of its investments outside of Silicon Valley.

For startups in NC, this validates our decision to be here, albeit thousands of miles from Silicon Valley. The very technologies that our tech startups are building are making it faster, easier, and more affordable than ever to communicate, lead, and invest across the globe. That should also make us realize that we don’t have anyone to blame for any lack of success we see.

Steve sees the intrinsic strengths our region has in the form of strong universities, but says we need to do more to keep the graduates in our state, working for startups and becoming entrepreneurs. Startup NC has a few events planned around addressing this issue.

Next, we have to work to attract more talent here from outside of our state. There are a lot of people with NC connections who are just looking for a reason to come back here—we have to give them that reason.

For those without NC ties, we need to build and showcase the density of opportunities here. That will help to attract entrepreneurs by giving them the comfort that there are an abundance of options if their current venture doesn’t work out. Smart entrepreneurs who take calculated risks like to know there’s a strong plan B.

Becoming an Active Participant in the Ecosystem
Steve encouraged entrepreneurs to focus at least 10% of their time on building and improving their local startup ecosystems, acknowledging the other ~90% of their time was best spent on making their companies successful.

It’s not just that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” it’s that the process of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem makes you a better entrepreneur. You have to have vision, build support and teams, execute, iterate, and execute and iterate more.

Steve urged NC entrepreneurs to roll up their sleeves and get actively involved with Startup NC because his experience in other states has been that entrepreneurs get a return multiplied by what they put in, in terms of time and effort.

I smiled, nodded my head, and sat back as he gave the pitch more effectively than I ever could.

Every entrepreneur left inspired and energized to do the hard work of building their startups and our startup ecosystem. One said it was obvious that our goal is to build a top-tier ecosystem and that has to be done by building one company at a time. What remains to be seen is whether we rise to the occasion and take advantage of our opportunity to do so.