Minneapolis, Minn. — It was a rare opportunity for business students at St. Thomas to put questions to arguably the most successful entrepreneur in history. According to Forbes, Bill Gates remains the world's richest person for the eighth year running, with about $46 billion to his name. And despite the ability to do nothing for the rest of his life, Gates remains active in the company he founded, as chairman and chief software architect at Microsoft.
To hear Gates tell it, he could have missed out on the whole ride. It took some time for Gates the teenager to recognize that tinkering with computer code late at night with friends could be a business opportunity.
"I didn't see a connection between what I would do with my life and my software hobby," Gates said. "I thought, 'I'll go be a lawyer.' That's what my dad did. 'I'll be a mathematician.' That seemed like a challenging interesting profession. So it was only about four or five years into it when we really got the sense of what a miracle it would be to take that computer from being a big expensive thing to bringing it down to being a personal thing."
Once the opportunity took hold of his mind, though, Gates says there was nothing else. He dropped out of Harvard after two years to make it happen.
"In the whole history of the software industry it's fairly rare for somebody with a strong position to be caught up to. In most cases it was Microsoft catching up to them."
- Microsoft chairman Bill Gates
St. Thomas students wanted to know how life as an entrepreneur balanced with life outside of Microsoft. "When I started Microsoft, for the first 12 years or so I had no work-life balance," Gates said. "Because I had no home, I was not married, I didn't believe in vacation. I worked, and that was fun. One good story about that is that my mom had gotten to know Katherine Graham and she was bringing out Warren Buffett on July 4 out to Seattle. And my mom said, 'You ought to come meet these people,' and I said, 'Mom I'm busy, I don't take July 4 off.'"
Gates did take the day off, chartering a helicopter to get there at the last minute. He now sits on the board of directors of Warren Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway.
For such unequivocal successes, Gates and Best Buy founder Richard Schulze spent a fair amount of time talking to students about failure. Gates says he likes to hire people who have been through failed businesses, bringing along the lessons they've learned. Schulze gave some sense of the notoriously quick-changing retail industry when he told students the trick is to evolve fast enough to head off failure.
"Reinvent yourself, and don't be afraid to reinvent yourself," Schulze said. "Any business is on a very fast-paced treadmill today. There are a lot of competitors who are working in backrooms, at home, at night, 24-hours a day, in different countries, trying to figure out different, better, more unique ways to do different things. In our industry, we've got competitors coming at us from areas that 10 years ago didn't even exist."
In the case of a dominant company like Microsoft, the idea of failure is highly relative. But when students wanted to know what Gates considered his biggest mistakes along the way, he was ready with a current example.
"Really understanding certain things about advertising and search, and letting Google get out in front on those things," Gates said. "That's a big mistake, because they as a leader now have the kind of scale, and if they do their job right and listen to advertisers about what they need, it's hard for somebody to come from behind and catch up. In fact, in the whole history of the software industry it's fairly rare for somebody with a strong position to be caught up to. In most cases it was Microsoft catching up to them, fortunately."
Given how many new ideas fail or never even see the light of a venture capitalist's conference room, Gates was ready with something of a pep talk for St. Thomas students looking at the prospect of launching their own business.
"I don't know why it is that many people who have the talent to do that, don't take the risk. Is it that they're worried they'll be shut down? And I think at some point in your life if you stop thinking that way, you never get it back. Almost everybody has it when they're young. There's something that pushes it out. Having the confidence, the optimism, that's part of it. Not letting setbacks shut off those creative juices. And not thinking that people like us are somehow magical."
Of course, there is something somewhat magical about the world's richest man, dispensing advice to a hall full of business students. But Gates seemed ready to pass the torch, saying young people "are going to define the new rules of the game."