The happiest billionaire
by Knute Berger
Paul Allen has written a memoir that is already violating the rules of “Seattle Nice.” He has dared say some angry things about his former business partner Bill Gates, a man never shy about exhibiting his own contempt for the weak in the Darwinian world of business.
Some commentators have tut-tutted about the tone of Allen’s work, Idea Man, excerpted in the latest Vanity Fair. Brier Dudley, the respected Seattle Times tech columnist, calls Allen’s dishing “catty,” saying “Allen risks going down in history as the world’s richest disgruntled employee — the guy who stomped out of the building with $20 billion, thinking he deserved $25 billion.” He describes the Allen excerpt as reading like a “vendetta.”
But what right-thinking journalist would want anything different? Allen has been notoriously reclusive and hostile to reporting on his private life. I spent the better part of the 1990s directing coverage of Microsoft and the local tech world at Eastsideweek and Seattle Weekly, and incurred the wrath of Allen’s people on several occasions, such as when one of our reporters visited the address of his foundation and it proved to be his sister’s home, or when one of his aides shrieked at me on the phone for having sent Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jerry Gay to get a picture of the Allen compound on Mercer Island from a public right-of-way. This is a man who has been compared to Howard Hughes as a protector of his privacy, and I was scolded more than once for violating it.
Microsoft and Bill Gates have often been just as bad, threatening local reporters with cutting off access for coverage that made them unhappy, making it almost impossible for local media to break through the gates around Gates to get something meaty, spontaneous, unscripted. Calls to Microsoft have routinely been routed through PR people in Portland who would not connect you with anyone but other spokesdrones who would respond to pre-determined topics or questions.
And then there’s the Microsoft wall of silence when it comes to dishing on the guy who made you rich. There has been an unspoken rule among former Microsoft big-shots not to bite the hand that gave you options. If Microsoft or Bill Gates put you on easy street, then you’d better keep your mouth shut. Microsoft has been famous for its ubiquitous non-disclosure agreements (“If I told you what I’m working on, I’d have to kill you”), but the best silencer has come in the form of wealth, a kind of hush-money for former senior executives. Ex-Microsoft execs have sometimes been chastened by their peers for even minor violations of the code. Smile, stay quiet, spend your money.
So, why would we encourage Paul Allen to be moderate in his honesty? Or his feelings? He has things to tell us about himself, and his role in business and tech history. He was the partner of a younger man who became the richest man in the world, a world he helped to revolutionize with the simple notion of getting a computer on everyone’s desk. Allen tells us of the role he, Allen, played with a kind of intimacy that no one else could duplicate. His version of his life and its ups and downs, the extraordinary ride he took as son of a librarian to billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, collector, developer, rock-enthusiast, etc., can only have an upside for inquiring minds.
Allen’s memories and observations about the early years with Gates ring true. The teletype computer printer that clacked away in a closet-sized room at Lakeside is now on display at the school. I think it should be on display at the new Museum of History and Industry as an icon for what that now-antique piece of technology spawned. Allen’s description of Gates’ prickly and competitive personality, his brilliance, his ruthlessness, are not a surprise, being well-documented in other books and court records. But they mean more coming from someone who worked with Gates so long, who, like all your high-school and college buddies, has seen the best and worst of you while you were still in the making.
The page-turning element of these early years is twofold. One is the tension that builds as two computer geeks stumble toward making history; the other is in the yin-yang of their partnership, which in the early phases is kind of a Lennon-McCartney partnership of encouragement, tension, competition, synergy, taking their enterprise to new levels despite the odds. And it is clear that Allen wants to make the case for his place in the history of it all: It was he who suggested they start the company and encouraged Gates to drop out of Harvard to do it; it was he who came up with the company name, Micro-Soft, which not only brilliantly described their niche (software for microcomputers) but made them seem kind of cuddly, small and warm, when the goal was global domination, big and hard.
Gates was the one from a family of power and privilege, Allen from more modest means. Both of Gates’ parents were powerful and respected local figures. Gates was the social misfit in elastic-waist pants and sweaters, the genius who seemed touched by Asperger’s. Allen was the quiet guy with the turtlenecks and hippie hair who not only read science fiction and listened to Hendrix, but who would discuss it with you. Allen says he caved to Gates on many Microsoft issues, drained by the constant bullying and arguing.
A 50-50 partnership became a 64-36 percent one, financially, and Allen might have been even further diminished if, he writes, he had not interrupted a plot by Gates and Steve Ballmer to dilute his position and marginalize him further while he was recuperating from cancer. Gates and Ballmer backed off, but Allen lets you know he has the proof on paper: A letter Gates sent to him apologizing.
Allen chose to bail on the company, with stock that wound up being worth billions. He felt a full partner in getting Microsoft launched, he settled for less than half-a-loaf rather than a life of headaches putting up with Gates’ drive and tantrums, being exhausted by their incompatibilities. It cost Allen billions just to escape, even with the most enviable of golden parachutes.
What I take away is that Allen doesn’t claim to have made Microsoft what it is today, but he clearly says that it would not exist if it weren’t for his part in those early years. Is it true? A point of pride? A revision of history? A he-said-he-said we’ll never sort out? Historians will work on it, but they’re being helped mightily by knowing Allen’s version of events.
A couple of other things come to mind. For all that Allen may have been wronged at times, he is no innocent. Anyone who becomes the richest man in the world must have something more than luck on his side, and there is an extent to which Gates’ drive and rapaciousness, his ill-treatment of employees and contractors and partner companies, the circumstances that brought the famous antitrust suit, all put coin in Allen’s pocket. If Gates was unscrupulous, Allen benefited. And Allen in his own business dealings has been no pussycat.
Second, I can’t help but sympathize with Allen. While I don’t like much of what Vulcan has done to reshape South Lake Union, nor the travesty of public process that resulted in a publicly funded Qwest Field for the Seahawks, I respect his civic engagement, his investing in Seattle, which he did at a time when Gates was still eschewing local focus.
More than that, Allen is the one who has spent his time and money as many of us would like to. He’s started museums devoted to rock and science fiction and hired one of the world’s great architects to design it; he sails the world like a super villain in yachts and planes, he’s amassed an enormous art collection, he built a space ship, he’s searching for alien life, he’s trying to figure out how the human brain works, he’s donated money to charity, he lives in a compound and looks after his family, he’s dabbled in Hollywood, dated celebrities, and owns two sports franchises. Gates has been focused, but Allen is more eclectic, creative — chaotic perhaps, self-indulgent even, but interesting.
If Gates is the exceptional billionaire, the one-of-a-kind who became rich and now devotes his time to philanthropy and the astonishing challenge of global health (his foundation also helps fund Crosscut), Allen is the 12th Man Billionaire, the guy who does the cool stuff that you would want to do too, who follows his intellectual passions, who experiments, who seems to truly enjoy what he has. It’s a life we can envy, at least from the outside, forgetting, of course, the battles with cancer that would darken any fairy tale. There’s something about Allen’s passions that portray a man of expansive interests, restless curiosity, the son of a librarian whose billions have opened up the book of the world for himself.
No wonder he wants to write new chapters.
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