I recently visited my friend, John, in Seattle, and considering that it was my first time to this wonderful city, he gave me a great city tour. What I was shocked to learn was how many times Paul Allen’s name came up along the way. We took a walk through the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum, founded by Allen, which is dedicated to the history and exploration of both popular music and science fiction. Apparently Allen, a huge music lover and Star Trek fan, thought creating a huge museum dedicated to his two passions would be a cool idea. The museum has everything from E.T. the alien in the (fake) flesh to a Jimi Hendrix exhibit, making it a very cool place to visit.
My friend also drove me through an area called South Lake Union which at one point was considered the city’s garage, a half-ignored area in Seattle with tired storefronts. However, Allen is now turning South Lake Union around with a plan that calls for 10 million square feet of laboratories, offices, apartments, condominiums, hotels, stores and restaurants. Allen’s developments could bring in 20,000 jobs and turn biotechnology research into an industry that redefines the Seattle economy. There were many other points in my visit where Allen’s name came up, and I’ve only listed two of his many accomplishments and projects since co-founding Microsoft.
While learning about how Allen has spent his wealth was very fascinating, I found it even more interesting to learn how he made his fortune and all of the challenges and rewards that came along the way. For those of you who would also find this interesting, we’re in luck, as Allen is soon to release his memoir “Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft” on April 19. I am very excited for the book release, especially after extensive excerpts were published in the May 2011 issue of Vanity Fair.
Telling from the excerpts, the book brings the reader way back to his high school days when he met Bill Gates at Lakeside School, a private school in Seattle. Allen has a great way of writing from the perspective of the time he is describing. During his high school days, he writes, “Soon I was spending every lunchtime and free period around the Teletype with my fellow aficionados. Others might have found us eccentric, but I didn’t care. I had discovered my calling. I was a programmer.” Can’t we all relate to those times in our youth when we are discovering and learning new things every day and some things just grab a hold of your attention and energy? This same excitement appears again when Allen and Gates get their first opportunity, an open invitation by the MITS company, in Albuquerque, to build a programming language for their new Altair microcomputer. Allen goes into extreme detail about the time and energy put into this project, and he talks in extreme technical detail about the ups and down of the development (most of which the regular reader has no idea what Allen is talking about, but this detail brings home the fact that Allen and Gates were obsessed with every single aspect of this project). Suspense builds for the reader as Allen travels down the Albuquerque to run the program, and Allen takes the reader through his mental thought process as the trip unfolds (Allen repeatedly tells himself, “There’s just no way this is going to work.”). However, we all know that with Allen and Gates, there is a happy ending. “You’re the first guys who came in and showed us something,” he [MITS owner] said. “We want you to draw up a license so we can sell this with the Altair. We can work out the terms later.” I couldn’t stop grinning. Once back at the hotel, I called Bill, who was thrilled with the news. We were in business now, for real; in Harvard parlance, we were golden.” It is a great reading experience, being brought through the mental journey of Allen as he expresses the feelings of self-doubt and dedication that came with this first business success.
We travel with Allen from their first success, to the days when Microsoft is at the top of its game. While Allen and Gates are obviously brilliant people, it becomes obvious that their management styles are extremely different. Allen describes Gates as liking to hash things out in intense, one-on-one discussions, and that he thrived on conflict and isn’t shy about instigating it. While the outside world praises Gates for his management style, Allen doesn’t hesitate to put down his management style “Some said Bill’s management style was a key ingredient in Microsoft’s early success, but that made no sense to me. Why wouldn’t it be more effective to have civil and rational discourse? Why did we need knock-down, drag-out fights? Why not just solve the problem logically and move on?” It is always so fascinating getting the insider perspective, and it proves once again to the outsiders that we really don’t have a clue.
After being diagnosed and treating Stage 1-A Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Allen goes through the thought process of wanting to step away from what seemed to be a very stressful work environment. From the beginning of Allen’s adventure with Gates until his last few months with the company, Allen takes time to discuss specific conversations with Gates dealing with his ownership of the company and how he was continually edged out of more and more share in the company. Allen takes time to show the reader how much these conversations weighed on him, taking breaks numerous times in the memoir to express to the reader how he would ponder how and why Gates approaching him with certain numbers. Allen comes up a few different hypotheses for why Gates offered certain ownership percentages… “He might have argued that the numbers reflected our contributions, but they also exposed the differences between the son of a librarian and the son of a lawyer. I’d been taught that a deal was a deal and your word was your bond. Bill was more flexible; he felt free to renegotiate agreements until they were signed and sealed. There’s a degree of elasticity in any business dealing, a range for what might seem fair, and Bill pushed within that range as hard and as far as he could.” It is fascinating to know that someone like Allen, considered co-founder by the entire world, could feel anything but an equal partner himself.
While Allen is tough on Gates in many ways, he gives him many compliments along the way as well. “Each time I brought an idea to Bill, he would pop my balloon. “That would take a bunch of people and a lot of money,” he’d say. Or “That sounds really complicated. We’re not hardware gurus, Paul,” he’d remind me. “What we know is software.” And he was right. My ideas were ahead of their time or beyond our scope or both. It was ridiculous to think that two young guys in Boston could beat IBM on its own turf. Bill’s reality checks stopped us from wasting time in areas where we had scant chance of success.”
What Allen and Gates accomplished is an amazing feat, and this novel proves that there is no easy path to such tremendous success. We all see Paul Allen as a tremendously successful person who has and does amazing things with his fortune (philanthropic and business ventures), but this books focuses us in much closer than that. We see the world from Allen’s perspective and begin to understand what goes through the mind of someone who is building a revolutionary company in a revolutionary field. I find it fascinating, emotional, joyous and at times a bit sad. Allen did leave the company he helped build because he had to, not because he truly wanted to. I’m just glad that Allen decided to share his journey with the world, inspiring new entrepreneurs to have the same energy and focus as Allen and Gates had in their early days and to expect the bumpy road that comes with growing a great company.
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This article was originally published on April 20, 2011