Imagine Bill Gates in seventh grade. Scrawny, nerdy--and destined for greatness, whether he knew it or not.

He had a million things going for him. But perhaps the most important ingredient to his eventual success was the person he met during that school year: his future co-founder at Microsoft, Paul Allen, who died this week at the age of 65.

Entrepreneurship is incredibly lonely--soul-crushingly lonely at times. The best way some of the smartest and most successful entrepreneurs combat that loneliness is to team up with a trusted co-founder. 

In remembering Allen, Gates just explained the most important thing any founder can do if he or she wants to build something truly great. It's in the very first sentence of the tribute he penned to Allen for The Wall Street Journal

I met Paul Allen when I was in 7th grade, and it changed my life.

Find a co-founder (at school if you can)

Co-founders find each other all kinds of places: previous workplaces, among friends, colleagues, community groups. But there's another story you'll hear over and over about some fantastic entrepreneurial founding teams--that they met in school.

Think of some of the founding teams we practically venerate:

  • Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak met in high school.  
  • Larry Page and Sergei Brin met in college.
  • Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard (founders of HP) were classmates at Stanford.
  • The Ben and Jerry's ice cream guys, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, met in high school gym class.
  • Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss, co-founders of Rent the Runway, met at Harvard Business School.
  • Vinit Bharara and Marc Lore, co-founders of Quidsi (Diapers.com, among other brands, which sold to Amazon for $545 million) met in elementary school. 

It goes on and on. Gates clearly recognizes this, even though Allen isn't the only person he ever partnered with, of course.

But if you want to build something truly great, and maybe even do it multiple times during your life, the people you work with are likely more important than almost anything else.

So, if you meet that key future co-founder, and him or her them early enough in life to develop a key relationship, it can affect everything else that happens.

The Gates and Allen story

Long since removed from seventh grade, Gates's article is an homage to a dear departed friend, but it's also testimony about just how important this relationship was.

He says he looked up to Allen immediately, as Allen was in ninth grade when Gates was in seventh. And Allen was a computer genius, which Gates greatly admired.

They bonded over their shared fascination with a teletype machine their school had, which was hooked up over telephone lines with a time-sharing computer owned by GE. As Gates recalled:

Eventually we were spending just about all our free time messing around with any machine we could get our hands on. At an age when other high school kids were sneaking out of the house to go partying, Paul and I would sneak out at night to go use the computers in a lab at the University of Washington.

It sounds geeky, and it was, but it was also a formative experience, and I'm not sure I would have had the courage to do it without Paul. 

You might already know how the story Gates recounts picks up from there. By the time he made it to Harvard, Allen had already dropped out of Washington State University and was working as a programmer in Boston.

Thus it was Gates to whom Allen ran in December 1974, when he saw a magazine article about the brand new Altair 8800 computer, urging him to join him immediately in business.

"That moment marked the end of my college career and the beginning of our new company, Microsoft," Gates writes.

Fascinating. As Gates tells the story, founding the company that became Microsoft wasn't even his idea. It was Allen's. 

Oh, my god, what if you didn't meet a co-founder in school?

It's not as if you can't start a company without a co-founder. Or that the only place you can meet a great fit co-founder is in school. 

It certainly does help if you've had a working or personal relationship before. You don't want the first time you've had a disagreement to be when you're facing a critical issue in your startup.

So, the true lesson? Build your relationships. Work on small projects with other people, and maybe they'll turn into bigger projects.

And perhaps one day you'll look back on the relationship like Gates did, and realize that it changed your life.

Published on: Oct 19, 2018
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