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Islander Paul Allen Pens Memoir

Paul Allen dishes on his former business partner and teenage chum, Bill Gates.

Mercer Island’s most famous resident, billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has penned a memoir, titled Idea Man, due out this month.

Though there is an embargo on the book until its release date Tuesday, Vanity Fair magazine made a special deal with publisher Penguin to print a hefty excerpt in the magazine's April issue. Allen, current chairman of Vulcan, Inc. — a privately held project management and investment company based in Seattle thought to be worth billions of dollars — reportedly spends much of the book describing the early days of Microsoft, a company he helped co-found with Bill Gates, garnering international attention.

In the Vanity Fair excerpt, Allen outlines his relationship with Gates, from their teen years at the same school, to their stormy relationship while building Microsoft together.

“I remember the first time I went to Bill’s big house, a block or so above Lake Washington, feeling a little awed. His parents subscribed to Fortune, and Bill read it religiously. One day he showed me the magazine’s special annual issue and asked me, 'What do you think it’s like to run a Fortune 500 company?' I said I had no idea. And Bill said, 'Maybe we’ll have our own company someday.' He was 13 years old and already a budding entrepreneur.”

Allen makes Gates sound, in several early passages, as if Gates is autistic, like Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man:

"Rita (Allen’s girlfriend) and I had come to New England knowing two people. Then there was Bill. Rita had roasted a chicken one night for dinner and couldn’t take her eyes off him. 'Did you see that?' she said after he’d left. 'He ate his chicken with a spoon. I have never in my life seen anyone eat chicken with a spoon.' When Bill was thinking hard about something, he paid no heed to social convention. Once, he offered Rita fashion advice—basically, to buy all your clothes in the same style and colors and save time by not having to match them. For Bill, that meant any sweater that went with tan slacks."

Allen also points out that he was intrinsic to Microsoft’s success, even naming the company:

“Now our partnership needed a name. We considered Allen & Gates, but it sounded too much like a law firm. My next idea: Micro-Soft, for microprocessors and software. While the typography would be in flux over the next year or so (including a brief transition as Micro Soft), we both knew instantly that the name was right. Micro-Soft was simple and straightforward. It conveyed just what we were about.”

Although he worked hard to help found the company and write the programs that would ulitimately be running a majority of the world's computers, Allen says that Gates schemed behind his back to take control of the company while Allen was battling cancer. In a climactic passage, Allen describes discovering Allen and Steve Ballmer — Microsoft's first business manager — allegedly conspiring on how they could reduce the level of influence he had as a shareholder by diluting his stock equity.

"Unable to stand it any longer, I burst in on them and shouted, 'This is unbelievable! It shows your true character, once and for all.' I was speaking to both of them, but staring straight at Bill. Caught red-handed, they were struck dumb. Before they could respond, I turned on my heel and left.

"I helped start the company and was still an active member of management, though limited by my illness, and now my partner and my colleague were scheming to rip me off. It was mercenary opportunism, plain and simple.”

Fortunately, Allen notes later that Gates low-balled him on a price for his stocks in Microsoft, enough so that Allen refused to sell out to Gates at all. This turned out to be a boon to Allen, who would later make a fortune from his Microsoft stock.

A Penguin representative in charge of publicity for Idea Man said that Allen will be reading from his book and signing it at a few select venues throughout the Pacific Northwest, starting with a Town Hall signing on April 22. Idea Man will be available for purchase at on April 19 as well.

Vanity Fair’s full excerpt can be found here. News digest TV show 60 Minutes also ran a story on Allen's book on Sunday, including an interview with a local pair of journalists. The video of the story, including footage of both Gates and Allen walking around an abandoned warehouse that once housed an early high-school venture, are found here.

Timothy Egan of the New York Times published an opinion piece outlining his belief that Allen is a lonely man who is not doing as much with his money as Gates.

Mike Attebery April 18, 2011 at 05:17 PM
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/dp/B0028K33GS
DeAnn Rossetti April 18, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Hi Mike and Jerry, you might also want to pick up a copy of Syne Mitchell's "The Changeling Plague" which is a science fiction book with a main character suspiciously like Paul Allen. I bet he knows that she meant that character to be him, however, as "The Changeling Plague" is on display at Allen's Museum of Science Fiction next to his EMP downtown.
Mike Attebery April 18, 2011 at 08:54 PM
DeAnn, thanks for the heads up! Had no idea about that book, but will definitely check it out!
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA April 19, 2011 at 12:44 AM
Paul Allen's and Timothy Egan's NYT piece should probably be read together to get the true story. (That's what I'm going to do). J-

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