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.