At just 23 years old in 1979, Bill Gates was in charge of one of the most well-known software companies in the world. Microsoft had revenues around $2.5M per year in 1979. They employed a small, highly motivated team.
Well, most of them were highly motivated.
As Gates explained in an interview with the BBC recently, he used to memorize the license plates of his employees to know when they were arriving and when they were leaving for the day. Let's just say he wanted to know who was committed.
As anyone who has started a company knows, when you smell an opportunity, you get a little transfixed by it. You can barely think of anything else. Microsoft would eventually build the original version of DOS and then the first version of Windows, which sold 14 million copies in its first year, according to the BBC interview.
In 1979, the opportunities to build something amazing for the business world had never quite existed before... and would never exist again.
Apple was just getting started -- they incorporated in 1976 -- and IBM would introduce the first personal computer in 1981. You could argue that mobile app development had similar opportunities with the launch of the iPhone and Android, but the tech market was firmly established. In many ways, mobile devices are another offshoot from the original vision Microsoft established: operating system and apps.
"I was quite fanatical about work," Gates said in the interview. "I worked weekends, and I didn't really believe in vacations. I had to be a little careful not to apply my standards to how hard they worked."
I'm pretty sure I know the reason he pushed them. Gates wanted people to be as invested as he was. I imagine he had to practically beg them to stay at work and keep cranking out the code, knowing full well that the window of opportunity (excuse the pun) would exist only for a short period of time. He knew, once the window closed, another company might sweep in and steal away first-time customers.
Gates explained that he was always aggressive but never ruthless. He might have been a bit controlling, and admitted in the interview that it was probably a bit ridiculous that he was tracking employee activities (he stopped doing it as soon as the company started getting bigger), but I understand his motivation. He was hungry. He wanted everyone else to be just as hungry.
There's nothing quite like a first-time customer for a first-time product in a product segment that has never existed before. There have been only a few over the past 40 years. Dyson made the first bagless vacuum; now you can barely find models that use a bag. Tesla made the first high-mileage electric car (the Model S goes 300 miles); now Ford and Chevy are scrambling to make a budget car that has a similar range. Uber and Airbnb invented the sharing economy, and now boast a valuation that matches up nicely with their originals visions.
The question is: What industry is next? How do you find an opportunity that is so ripe and ready for plunder that you start memorizing employee license plates? Have you found the next Microsoft-size opportunity? If so, let me know. I want to write about it.