Idea Man is the latest in a growing group of “co-founder” memoirs (Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak’s iWoz and Digital Equipment Corp. co-founder Harlan Anderson’s Learn, Earn and Return being two others) that have attempted to set the historical record straight by emphasizing contributions they’ve made and their relationship with partners who would wind up overshadowing them on the public stage. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft Corporation, arguably the most successful computer firm in history, has added significantly to this genre with Idea Man. With this autobiography drawn largely from his own journal entries, Allen has written a matter-of-fact, detailed account of his relationship with co-founder Bill Gates: how the two of them met at the Lakeside boarding school in Washington State, shared a love for “hacking” or writing code, and eventually set the stage for their company by securing a contract to write a BASIC computer software program for the fledgling MITS Altair 8800 computer, which Allen first read about in a computer publication while working for Honeywell Corporation outside of Boston. At the time, the younger Gates was enrolled at Harvard, but the itch to start a company was never far removed from either man, and after Allen showed Gates the article he read, it was apparent the Albuquerque-based MITS Corp. presented intriguing opportunities for software development - which Gates and Allen pursued with alacrity.
Paul Allen is a man of many talents, but has also accepted and liberally related both his flaws and regrets throughout the book. A core theme was a percolation of the animus he eventually felt for Gates, who Allen describes in this book variously as relentlessly brilliant, imperious, stubborn, conniving, insecure, insensitive, reckless (with an affinity for collecting speeding tickets) and stingy (yet capable of great generosity on occasion). A main point of contention between them was the original partnership agreement for Microsoft, and how it was later modified. Gates, the son of a successful attorney, argued effectively for a 60% – 40% stake, though after their contract with IBM, Gates asked that it be again modified to 64% – 36%. Though Allen was a bit resentful with these developments, he largely took them in stride.
However, the final straw came with a meeting between Gates and eventual CEO Steve Ballmer (who was friends with Gates at Harvard) discussing Allen’s perceived disillusionment and lack of productivity with the company. They then proceeded to hatch a scheme to diminish further Allen’s ownership stake in the company. Allen, who had been listening outside the whole time, angrily burst into the room and their relationship was never the same.
Allen left the company before it went public in 1986, after he had been diagnosed with a treatable form of Hodgkin’s Disease, and when Microsoft finally had its initial public offering (IPO), he became a billionaire overnight. He traveled a bit, but quickly became restless. Being a big basketball fan and a lover of sports generally from before his days at “Wazzu” (Washington State University), he made an overture to the ownership of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, and at 35 years of age became the youngest team owner in all of professional sports. Later, he would become the owner of the Seattle Seahawks NFL team and part owner of the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team.
In addition to sports, Allen enjoyed listening to and playing rock music and was mezmerized by the guitar artistry of Seattle native Jimi Hendrix. This led him to build the Experience Music Project in Seattle (named after Hendrix’s band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience), a repository for important musical artifacts, archive and science fiction museum. Allen’s sister Jody, herself an experienced and capable fundraiser, spearheaded its financing efforts and construction, and Frank Gehry was later secured as its architect. Allen not only idolized Hendrix, he is himself a skilled guitarist and eventually realized a goal other men can only fantasize about: to meet and perform with the world’s most noteworthy rock musicians. Through various channels, he befriended musicians such as U2’s Bono, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel, Dave Stewart, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and many other members of rock ‘n roll royalty. Additionally, Allen later became involved with motion pictures, creating Vulcan Productions, where, among other works, he co-produced Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed PBS series “The Blues.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games for Allen, who was fascinated by the workings of the brain, and the seemingly endless possibilities for artificial intelligence. But the major impetus for his creation of the Allen Institute for Brain Science was personal: in 2003 his mother was diagnosed with dementia, which he described in a Jan. 21, 2003 journal entry: “My mother is struggling right now with an Alzheimer’s-like condition. I’m sick at heart about this.” He launched his Institute with a $100 million donation and it was opened in September of that year.
Allen describes being remorseful at not having been able to properly say goodbye to his father, who died prematurely (age 60) of complications from a blood clot in his leg. To commemorate him, Allen established an endowment in his dad’s name at the University of Washington, where his father was an associate director of libraries. The Kenneth S. Allen Library, Allen asserts, now holds over a million volumes.
Allen also made numerous other investments in startup companies, as well as cable TV, where he admitted to significant failure. But overall, Idea Man is a wonderful read; not only a firsthand, detailed portrait of Allen’s life, but an important and heretofore untold business history as well. Allen’s role in Microsoft was instrumental in obtaining the company’s lucrative relationship with IBM in 1981 and in developing software that was not only IBM, but Apple compatible. It’s safe to say that most of Microsoft’s greatest coups during the late ’70s and early ’80s would not have occurred without Allen’s presence.
From his average childhood in a typical American family of Seattle, via Anadarko, Oklahoma, to the pinacle of high tech achievement, Allen’s contributions to the computer industry remain monumentally significant, and he describes his career with honesty, conviction and not a small amount of humor. Idea Man is a winner.
Idea Man, by Paul Allen, is published by Penguin Group, U.S.A. $27.95.