Idea Man 2011, by the co-founder of Microsoft
I’m not a big fan of star struck biographies. I’m not that pushed to read the retrospective hagiography mapping out all the surefooted steps taken on the never in doubt path to global domination. This book looked more interesting. I was curious to find out why he left Microsoft, what he did once he landed on his metaphorical behind. What it was like being that rich, and how he applied it to interesting and positive initiatives to help mankind.
We are at an interesting and exciting time for mega rich billionaires. From Chuck Feeny to Bill Gates himself, we’ve seen many become astronomically rich really fast, and then decide they will do more kindness to mankind and their own families by giving a large amount of it away again. Even Steve Jobs was disinterested in the money.
Paul Allen comes across a smart guy, naturally. The niche they filled in the beginning was clear, but the ability to fill it, highly challenging. It was mostly just him and Bill Gates in the beginning. In many ways they worked in tandem, complementary ways. However, after concluding a few successful projects, and reaching the point of forming Micro – soft, Gates argued hard that he had done a lot of the most recent work, and should therefore have a slightly higher share. This was initially set at 55% – 45% in favour of Gates. Allen went along with it, because, at that moment in time it seemed fair. Later on, Gates then pushed for 64% – 36%. Allen agreed because, again, at that moment in time it was an accurate reflection of what was happening. However later on, when Allen pulled off a significant development, he asked Gates to revisit the agreed % breakdown. Allen, raised by teachers, had always believed that decisions would be made in a spirit of fairness and equanimity. Gates however, raised by lawyers, grew furious and told Allen that that was not an agreement they were going to revisit.
At this point Allen knew they were not the same, and that his long term future would have to be outside Microsoft. This was a key moment in Allen’s life path. He stayed awhile longer at Microsoft, but his influence was gradually reduced, and he had no desire for further long screaming argument – discussion – processes with Gates. At that stage too Gates’s slightly less than generous treatment of Allen worked against him. Both sides recognised it was probably better to buy out Allen, this was while Microsoft were worth less than they would become. Allen offered Gates to buy him out for $10 a share. Gates offered $3, and then $5, but his caution worked against him and he refused to go higher. Allen remained a major share holder for several more years and left with billions rather than millions.
moving on from Microsoft, with the help of his yellow submarine
This provided the inevitable though at the time disappointing exit for Allen. Much like in the turmoil at Twitter, here again it seemed too big a challenge for both the founders to remain in the company. The original inequality in the distribution of the shares perhaps being a key reason. Allen then very quickly had a major health scare while in his late 20’s and then later on again in his life too. It seems to happen surprisingly often, as I’ve recently encountered with Ferdia MacAnna and also Raomal Perera also suffering major health episodes early in life. With Allen, and several billion in his pocket, it does help to focus your mind massively.
free onsite parking for the yellow submarine
I think for all of us, if we had a large amount of money in our pocket and an awareness that our time left on earth might be short, then we would try to use it as well as possible.
He does have fun along the way, buying an NBA and NFL team, yachts, and jamming with rock stars. However much more of his money went into future facing projects, that tried to map out the brain and how it works, as well as support for library initiatives, local community projects, and future massively connected initiatives. As an aside, he will incidentally note that some of these ventures netted him $75 million, but often only in passing when mentioning that if he had held onto his shares he would have made double figure billions.
Overall for him it’s about seeing if a particular company can come through with a really promising idea, that could make a massive difference to millions of people’s lives. Financial returns become less important than whether a company successfully brings the idea to market. However he also notes that if you don’t create some market focused strategy, a too free form approach tends to fail too. For a period of time he did fund a more ideas based, free ranging ideas campus, however the ideas became too esoteric and it had to be reigned in. This seems similar to the Lego experiment, where too much R without the D doesn’t seem to help anyone.
It’s a good read, and something interesting to keep in mind when discussing terms for your own fledgling companies.