Dan Bricklin's Remarks about Bill Gates at the Entrepreneur Walk of Fame event September 16, 2011
Looking back today, especially for all the young people who weren't even born, it's hard to remember how strange you'd be in the 1970s to think that a regular person would have their own computer.

In 1973 there were only 2,000 Automated Teller machines in all of the USA. That was probably the only “hands on” interaction people had with a computer, and very few of them experienced it. The pocket scientific calculator had just been introduced and the biggest computers here at MIT barely fit into huge air-conditioned rooms and let a few dozen specially trained people all share a whole two megabytes of RAM memory.

In 1975, Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. Bill was just 19 years old, and dropped out of Harvard. By 1977 they were stating publicly that their vision was “a computer on every desk and in every home...” and that they would participate by that computer running Microsoft software. That was not the vision of most other companies. Others may have targeted many engineers, or many homes, but not everyone for both business and personal use.

How big a step was this for people to take? Getting a computer is going from doing things by hand to by machine, like going from horses to automobiles, or from word of mouth to radio. It's not like going from radio to television or from vinyl to CDs where people already understand the general idea and new technology is just improving on old.

It was a grand and inclusive vision. It also seemed impossible. Why would they ***all*** want one? How could one tiny company, with sales that year of less than $400,000, help accomplish that?

Their vision also included others. They built computer languages and other tools and operating systems and other components that other companies could use to create their own software and power their own hardware products. Microsoft sold these products to all comers and evangelized their use.

The innovation of everyone combined would help drive things forward.

In 1977, total personal computer hardware sales were about $200 million.

By 1982, Microsoft revenues were $24 million. While Time Magazine called the personal computer the “Machine of the Year”, Bill's goal was still far from realization.

As I and many others remember well, Jim Finke, Pres., Commodore Int'l, a personal computer manufacturer, said in 1982:

"The personal computer market is about the same size as the total potato chip market. Next year it will be about half the size of the pet food market and is fast approaching the total worldwide sales of pantyhose." We thought we were hot stuff, but that sure put us in our place.

By 1987, Microsoft sales were $450 million. The next 100 largest personal computer software companies had sales totaling $1.8 billion, and the hardware companies sales were in the 10s of billions of dollars. The industry had grown quite a bit.

But Bill continued growing the company and the industry. As he is quoted as saying, “Never before in history has innovation offered the promise of so much to so many in so short a time.”

By 1994, MS revenues, bolstered by the one-two punch of its Windows and Microsoft Office products, were up 10-fold at over $5B, with the next 100 top personal computing software companies also growing 10 times to revenues of over $18B. Sales of personal computer hardware that ran Microsoft software was over $150 billion. The industry was getting huge.

Bill was once quoted as saying, “So that whole bootstrap, getting the industry going, making it personal, making there be lots of software, that's what we are the most proud of.”

In 1995 Bill became the richest person in the world. Rather than retiring to a beach, or becoming a recluse focused only on his company, and unlike other leading chief executives, he took the role as the public representative of the entire industry and he let the prominence of his great wealth make his words have greater weight on our behalf, even at the cost of own personal privacy. He didn't just tout his company at the expense of others, and even when he did, you could see him sheepishly smile to let you know what was happening.

By the year 2000, when he resigned as Microsoft's CEO, personal computers were selling at a rate of 100 million units per year. The industry around Microsoft included software, computers, printers, networking hardware, and much more.

In 2008, when he finally left Microsoft, its revenues were $60B, and there was a world-wide installed base of 1 billion personal computers, and the personal computer had become a staple of homes and businesses, pretty much bringing his vision to fruition.

With the normal ebb and flow of business, and thanks to the constant advancement predicted by Moore's Law, many of the businesses that flourished when working in concert with Microsoft have not lasted as long as the full 30-plus years Bill was there. However, many fortunes were made, and many, many good jobs, lasting many years, were created. And many of those businesses are still going strong. That's what an industry is all about.

Bill is now very actively helping to run the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, funded in part by much of the huge wealth he amassed through Microsoft's success. Listed on the organization's Web site are its two driving principles: “All lives — no matter where they are being lived — have equal value,” and “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Again, a grand vision of the universality of benefits. And, his foundation considers its partners an integral part of its work.

So, what about Bill is it that we want future entrepreneurs to emulate? What should they learn from him?

Well, clearly, it's not that you should drop out of college or that college doesn't matter. Bill continues to learn from college lectures that he watches on video. And you can be sure that those “Gates Buildings,” like the one down the street, and that are springing up in universities around the world are not being built to be empty.

It's also not to learn that you should be such an aggressive competitor. There are so many other, better examples of that, from AT&T to Standard Oil early in the last century. Incurring the wrath of the US Department of Justice isn't something one wants to encourage.

What you should emulate:

Include opportunity for others in your vision and in your business model. See your industry as bigger than just your company and advocate on its behalf.

Bill's vision included others who used Microsoft products as a component for building companies that could grow quite large, spawning many billion dollar businesses and an entire industry. Explicitly creating tools for others to build upon is in the DNA of his company.

Something else is his tenacity. If at first you don't succeed, try, try, and try again. Microsoft is infamous for getting it “right” in version 3, not version 1. Some of their ventures took years and years to bear fruit. Bill is always in it for the long haul to fulfill his grand vision, not looking for a short-term “flip”.

Finally, if society is set up so that your ideas, skills, and business style result in a lot money, feel obligated to include using that success to help society.

With all this drive, visibility, and financial success, you might think that Bill is some stuck up ego maniac. But he isn't. In business and work he's blunt and aggressive. To his friends, he's warm and devoted. He's not pretentious and very hands on.

One evening, many years ago when Bill was just a mere billionaire and not yet the world's richest person, I was talking to him after he gave a speech right here in Kendall Square. He and his partner Steve Ballmer were looking for a place to eat and I suggested an Indian restaurant down the road in Central Square. The three of us went traipsing through the parking garage, climbing over cable and concrete barriers to find my old beat up car. I left them off, alone, in front of the restaurant. No limos, no entourage, no “let others do it for me,” no different than you or me.

I also remember discussions years ago about money. He never talked about it as a goal for its own sake or caring exactly how much. Giving it back to society was the plan that I heard.

So, to sum up: What should you think of when you see Bill's star on this walk? Think big, and include the opportunity for the success of others in your vision.

For an explanation about this, see my blog post about it on September 19, 2011.
© Copyright 1999-2018 by Daniel Bricklin
All Rights Reserved.

See disclaimer on home page.