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The Story of a Pathological Entrepreneur

By John | February 11, 2008

The world might have easily missed the fact that William von Meister invented AOL had Steve Case not shown up for his memorial service on May 20, 1995. Family and friends were amused that day with eulogies describing von Meister’s voracious consumption of life, taking on fast cars, fine red wine, and only the best of the single malts. One of the eulogies described a dark side of von Meister’s drinking and his always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride luck in business. In one 10-year span, von Meister was involved in 9 startups and never stayed with one of them more than 2 years. One of von Meister’s close business associates said, “He was the most human of human beings I ever knew, and his flaws were never disguised.”

Even the published obituaries written that week had no mention of von Meister’s involvement in AOL. In fact, until that point, von Meister’s larger-than-life caricature might have seemed like an abject failure. He died broke and left his family in debt with nothing to show for all his business startups except a single plaque at the famous Palm restaurant in Washington, DC, and that was only because he probably bought more vintage scotch there than anyone else. When Steve Case took his turn at the memorial lectern, he opened with, “Without Bill Von Meister, there would have been no America Online.” Most of the people in attendance, including his family, had no idea of this man’s importance on the history of America industry. And that was less than the half of it.

Summary of Von Miester’s Creations/Involvements

  • Western Union Mailgram Service
  • The Source
  • AOL
  • Cable and Wireless (in the US)
  • Quest Communications
  • Verizon

All von Miester’s friends and business associates would agree that he was a horrendous businessman and a pathological dreamer. After about a year with a company, he would become obsessed with his next great idea and leave. In the end, more often than not, he was removed from his creation with no historical acknowledgment of his involvement. Sometimes, however, history has a way of fixing things. With a little bit of research, one can easily find that William von Meister’s footprint on history includes no less than the inventions of AOL, Western Union’s Mailgram service, Cable & Wireless’s entry into the America market, Digital FM radio, and the first utility that allowed consumers access to on-line information (“The Source”). In 1979, when Isaac Asimov first saw von Meister’s “Source,” he pronounced, “This is the beginning of the Information Age.” Von Meister, through his creation of the Source and his creation of what eventually became AOL, might be considered the single most important influence on getting most Americans on the Internet. In Alex Klein’s book Stealing Time, Alan Peyser, a former CEO of Cable and Wireless and close friend of von Meister, is quoted as saying, “I see all these things that say Steve Case was the founder of AOL, but I know better.”

Von Meister was the ultimate VC killer–you have to love him. One of his VC backers once said that he could raise money from the dead. Stealing Time includes a great story about how von Meister and his brother devised a plan for dealing with VC’s called “Dawn Patrol.” They would basically party their VC’s into submission. It all would start innocently enough with a morning meeting, then lunch at the Palm, and then an early dinner at von Miester’s luxurious house in Falls Church, Virgina. After dinner, the party would begin, and ,by the early hours of the next day, the drunk or hungover VC’s would beg to go home, at which point von Meister would start talking about going to his racquet club for tennis and cocktails. By then, the VC’s would say anything just to go home. In 1981, von Meister pitched an idea to Warner Brothers about allowing users to download digital music. Warner Brothers laughed him out of their office. He appears to have posthumously gotten the last laugh: 20 years later, AOL purchased Time Warner. Imagine what he would be thinking about if he were around today.

Topics: aol, internet, vcfightclub | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “The Story of a Pathological Entrepreneur”

  1. Walter Burien Says:
    March 17th, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    I knew Bill Von Meister back in the 80′s. What is not mentioned in the articles about him were:

    1. His first big start-off project was “The Source”, a data base in which the Internet developed out of. He sold The Source to Readers Digest for four-million dollars.

    2. Then the AOL kick-off with Steve Case.

    3. Then he started MCI Telecommunications and sold it.

    4. Then his next project was Quest Communications, where I became involved with him when I created an interactive hot-line called PTB – (Preferred Traders and Brokers)offered through his new Quest Communications. He did a bankruptcy, then reinstated, then Sold Quest.

    5. The last I time I met with him at his house in Virgina he said he had plans to get together up in North Jersey with a group of very wealth business leaders he was pulling together and start the largest “privately owned” telecommunication company in the country. He said he planned on calling the new company Verizon.

    On a last note: Bill was a member of the FORBES 200 entrepreneur Club started by Malcum Forbes.

  2. John Says:
    March 17th, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Wow! I think I caught all but items #4 and #5 in my article. He sounded like a fascinating man.

    Thank you very much for updating this blog entry.

    John

  3. Who Invented AOL? | John M Willis ESM Blog Says:
    April 11th, 2008 at 12:55 am

    [...] The Story of a Pathological Entrepreneur [...]

  4. Peter von Meister Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 9:03 am

    John, This is a wonderful tribute to my late “Big Brother,” Bill. And, yes, I was the other conspirator of operation Dawn Patrol. There are a few details most don’t know, among them that after MailGram, Bill started TDX, Inc. that was the genesis for C&W’s foothold in North America. Also, we didn’t sell the Source (Telecomputing Corporation of America) to Reader’s Digest. One of our investors named Jack Taub (of the philatelist company fame) tried to do that, and the resulting litigation turned out quite favorably for us, and an embarassment to former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who was then Reader’s Digest’s general counsel. Most memorable perhaps, is that we started Digital Broadcasting Corporation of America (DBC) by pioneering the technology to broadcast digital data over FM sub-carrier channels at an astounding (for 1979) rate of 7500 baud, and print discretely addressed messages at any receiver within the broadcast contour. At a hearing before an FCC sub-committee on our application for a provisional broadcast development permit, the Chair rejected our application with the rationale that the public airwaves will never be allowed to be used for private message transmission. Like so many arrogant regulators, he no doubt had concluded that everything worthy of invention had already been invented! There are many great stories yet untold. Best regards, Peter von Meister.

  5. John Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Peter,

    This is what I love about blogging. I was skimming some research about AOL when I stumbled across this fascinating man (William). An hour later I had written this article about a person I had never heard of. His story is fascinating. I am so happy you found your way to this blog. Thanks for your input.

    John

  6. Joe Cassara Says:
    September 19th, 2009 at 12:59 am

    AOL did not just appear out of thin air with a collaboration between William von Meister and Steve Case. It evolved from many other Quantum Computer Services technologies (which does not include The Source). William von Meister founded Control Video Corporation, which licensed technology from PlayNet to build Quantum Link, PC-Link, et. al. It can be said von Meister was instrumental in the creation of AOL, but not its “inventor.” James Kimsey and Steve Case really forged the foundation on which the modern day AOL stands.

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