Review: Paul Allen’s new book isn’t mean, it’s just honest

I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s memoir, “Idea Man,” due out Tuesday. You know, the one making all the headlines lately? Well, it turns out that Bill Gates isn’t the only person Allen is brutally honest about. He also casts a critical eye upon himself — particularly as he recounts, in vivid detail, his boneheaded business moves.

Among them: selling his stake in America Online too early, missing out on a “$40 billion bonanza” when AOL soared; allowing Charter Communications to be built too haphazardly, losing billions more; overpaying for his stake in DreamWorks under the impression (mistaken, as it turned out) that he would have a say in the studio’s strategy; and seeing his ambitious Silicon Valley lab fall far short of its potential in bringing its inventions to market in the 1990s.

Allen doesn’t mince words about latter-day Microsoft, either — devoting a chapter to its “breathtaking fall from grace,” and its struggle to keep pace with the “high-tech hellhounds” such as Facebook, Google and Apple that now lead the industry in devices and online technologies. (“If Microsoft fails to catch up in mobile,” Allen writes, “it’s in for a long, slow slide.”)

From that candor, about himself and the company, comes one of his most interesting insights.

“I left Microsoft a quarter century before Bill did, and we’ve both had our signal triumphs since then,” he writes at the end of the Hellhounds chapter. “But in certain respects, neither of us has been quite as good alone as we were together. I missed Bill’s laser focus on competition in the marketplace, his ability to execute my ideas and keep me from getting too far ahead of what was doable. And I’d like to think that Bill missed my ability to divine where technology was headed and my knack for meeting its trajectory with something big and original.”

To be clear, the book isn’t a total downer. Far from it. Allen’s story is inspiring in many ways, as he goes from the kid who couldn’t pay his $50 hotel bill in Albuquerque to the billionaire exploring the far reaches of the world and putting money into his biggest passions.

In short, “Idea Man” is the unvarnished story of Allen’s life, from his perspective — the highs and lows, the guitar jams and the arguments, the three yachts and the two struggles with cancer.

There are the details of his childhood and Microsoft’s early days — familiar stories that take on new meaning in Allen’s retelling. There are business insights for people in the tech industry, such as the struggles of Interval Research teaching Allen that “creativity needs tangible goals and hard choices to have a chance to flourish.” There are inside stories for sports fans, with the Seahawks and the Blazers each getting a chapter. There’s music and space travel and brain science.

Allen even offers up some fun tidbits about his celebrity pals, such as the time Bono baited Mick Jagger to join Allen on “Satisfaction” by singing the signature Stones song at half-speed.

In other words, the book is as varied as Paul Allen’s life. Its biggest shortcoming, particularly in its later chapters, is that it’s too eclectic — lacking the singular focus of an epic story.

Then again, in that way, it’s also a perfect reflection of Allen’s life.

If people can get past the recent media coverage, wrongly portraying Allen as vengeful, the book could cement the Microsoft co-founder’s legacy as one of the most important figures in 20th century technology, and possibly one of the more interesting characters of our time.

At the very least, give him credit for being honest.

Note: I’m interviewing Paul Allen about his book Friday evening at Town Hall Seattle. Advance tickets are sold out, but a limited number will be available at the door starting at 6:30 p.m.

  • Guest

    Thank you, Todd, for providing the best-written article I’ve read about “Idea Man.” So many have judged this book not even by its cover, but by a few out-of-context excerpts.

    I haven’t read so many breathless pre-release screeds about a book since Joe Torre and Tom Verducci’s “The Yankee Years” two years ago.

  • Anonymous

    After reading Vanity Fair excerpts, I thought the early sensational headlines weren’t justified. Now I feel even more so. I wish I had tickets for the Town Hall event….should be great.

    • Anonymous

      The event was great!!!

  • Anonymous

    The novel “Billionai­res, Bullets, Exploding Monkeys” features a character based on Paul Allen! Readers all seem to enjoy the book. Only 99 cents, and a fun companion read to Allen’s book “Idea Man.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Billionaires-Bullets-Exploding-Monkeys-ebook/dp/B0028K33GS

  • Majamadu

    Paul Allen is to the tech field what Charlie Sheen is to the acting field – in a stupor and believing the nonsense they generate

    • Guest

      Charlie Sheen has made millions of dollars by disintermediating CBS and selling his talents directly to the men who adore him. Paul Allen would be very wise to do the same.

  • Attebery

    Great review. Glad someone is trying to cut through the media tactics of hyperbole and outrage. Fascinating man.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rwoan Ronald S Woan

    Sounds like a classic buddy story… I am just irritated Kindle version is only $0.38 cheaper than hardcover :-(

  • http://twitter.com/katastrofamNET петрович

    Congratulations to Allen and Bill so that their example of cooperation – excellent demonstrated the critical importance and the need to address and observe characteristic features of the individual characteristics of each co-owner of the human factor. When not under these characteristics, the average baseline, always comes – the moment redistribution of individual responsibility – for all the past. And this is quite a new sphere of knowledge – has not yet secured any software products. Due to the underdevelopment of the industry of the world economy – in continuous mode are played daily accidents, incurable diseases, disasters and emergencies, deletes itself, Japan is deteriorating instead of evolving sotsium.Pochti everyone – behaving as if he – the last day of living on Earth. Hoping to remedy this situation – I – as the source of this knowledge – for Allen and for Bill – announces an open competition of an international peacekeeping – Who wants to be an author, owner and founding father of the same direction as the revolutionary Microsoft – for Innovation “Disaster Prevention System Principles and Emergency Situations, “” Accounting damaging components of the human factor “, and” Personal Database for the safety of life and human activities – can contact me – or at katastrofamnet@gmail.com rodinfo@mail.ru Award winner will be my best seller – published – only one copy – “Local causes of global catastrophes,”
    In connection with machine translation – the original is attached
    В связи с машинным переводом – оригинал прилагается

    Поздравляю Аллена и Билла с тем что их пример сотрудничества – замечательно продемонстрировал чрезвычайную важность и необходимость учитывать и соблюдать особенности проявления индивидуальных характеристик Человеческого Фактора Каждым совладельцем. При не соответствии этих характеристик средним базовым показателям, всегда наступает – момент перераспределения индивидуальной ответственности – за все былое.И это совершенно новая сфера знаний – пока еще не обеспеченная никакими програмными продуктами. Из-за недоразвитости этой отрасли мировой экономики – в непрерывном режиме ежедневно разыгрываются несчастные случаи,неизлечимые заболевания, катастрофы и чрезвычайные происшествия, самоуничтожается Япония, деградирует вместо эволюционирования социум.Почти каждый человек – ведет себя так, будто он – последний день живет на Земле. С надеждой на исправление такого положения – Я – как первоисточник этих знаний – для Аллена И для Билла – Обьявляю открытый международный миротворческий конкурс – Кто желает стать автором,владельцем и отцом основателем такого же революционного направления как Майкрософт – в сферах “Системных принципов предупреждения Катастроф и Чрезвычайных Ситуаций”, “Учета Поражающих Компонентов Человеческого Фактора” ,и “Персональных баз данных для обеспечения безопасной жизни и деятельности человека – могут обращаться ко мне – на katastrofamnet@gmail.com или rodinfo@mail.ru Наградой победителю будет мой БЕСТСЕЛЛЕР – издаваемый – ТОЛЬКО в ОДНОМ ЭКЗЕМПЛЯРЕ – “Локальные причины Глобальных Катастроф”

  • Fredrick Varga

    I would like to know, a man with all your smarts does not run for president of the united states, with all you have done, you would have the skills to get america out of trouble, and back on the right path.

  • Kent G anderson

    Paul , How can i contact you . Like to work for you and merger Global people FUTURE IP Brand and 12 years of my lifes work ideas for and by the people , share the global FUTURE brand for there own ideas best .KGA .www.futurevisionaries.com .

  • Kent G anderson

    Paul , How can i contact you . Like to work for you and merger Global people FUTURE IP Brand and 12 years of my lifes work ideas for and by the people , share the global FUTURE brand for there own ideas best .KGA .www.futurevisionaries.com .