Laura Rich, author of The Accidental Zillionaire: Demystifying Paul Allen
DAVID S. HIRSCHMAN |One
of the most mysterious characters in the drama of Microsoft's history is the
software company's lesser-known co-founder, Paul Allen, who left just before
the company's meteoric rise. Allen, who made billions from his Microsoft stock
options making him the fourth richest man on the planet, has gone on to a series
of unsuccessful endeavors in both technology and sports. Laura Rich, who wrote
the popular "Rich List" column for The Industry Standard, is
the author of the newly released unauthorized biography of Allen, entitled The
Accidental Zillionaire. Here she discusses her subject as well as the elusive
process of writing without access. (BuyThe
Accidental Zillionaire on Amazon.com)
How did you decide to write The Accidental Zillionaire? From covering technology and entertainment and media for the Industry
Standard and Adweek, I was really familiar with a lot of the stuff
that Paul Allen had done and had covered a lot of his companies in the past,
so I was already intrigued by him.One of the things that attracted me to the
project is that he was this really undefined guy. People had a hard time labeling
him. He's been called "the accidental zillionaire", but, during the
bubble, people also called him a "market king," and sometimes, the
real brains behind the founding of Microsoft.
Was he a difficult subject? In many ways, yes. He doesn't talk to many journalists, so he was a difficult
character because no one had figured out how to define him except in terms of
the "accidental zillionaire."
How well do you think the name "the accidental zillionaire"
describes Allen? I think it's a fair title to some degree. It's overblown a bit. He got the
title because his billions come primarily from Microsoft's IPO, even though
he wasn't there when the company was really taking off. The company's success
was really coming from the way it marketed itself, the way it moved into new
markets, all of its business strategy and not as much from its technology development,
which was Allen's main contribution. He's the guy who left early but held on
to his options and benefited tremendously. At the same time he did have a huge
role in the creation of the company, he's remained in the technology field and
poured more money back into it.
Did you have a sense, psychologically, of what he's all about? That's what I tried to accomplish with the book. I tried to present his
point of view as much as possible. A large part of what drives him is wanting
to create another success past Microsoft. I tried to present the events and
create a bit of a thread through it all, but I didn't want to be heavyhanded
with it, and say it was because his mother did this and that, because I don't
What do you think of his "wired world" concept? I think it's become almost mainstream, especially at this point, because
the "wired world" concept is simply the idea that everybody is hooked
up to something computerized. Even when Allen thought of it in 1974, sci-fi
novels were full of that stuff, so it wasn't an entirely foreign concept.
Did you approach him? I did. I approached his PR people and at first they seemed like they wanted
to participate; they certainly didn't close the door. I kept going back and
they started to become vague. They do this to a lot of people, giving them a
run-around I guess because they want all the information, but then usually they
say no. Finally, they told me they weren't going to participate, and that they
were going to tell other people not to participate. Eventually they even called
up some of my sources and asked them not to say anything.
So they actually interfered? To a degree. They also sent me a letter asking me to stop harassing Mr.
Allen and his friends, though I was clearly not harassing anybody. The letter
seemed to imply that they had no concept of him being a public figure, saying
that I was invading certain areas, and basically I had no right to do the book.
Of course he is a public figure, and I think he has a hard time realizing that.
did you get around it? I had a lot of contacts from working on previous stories with the Standard,
and I also networked among the contacts I already had.
Do you think it would have compromised the project if he had
given you access? It might have. It can turn you into a stenographer if the subject has full
say over the project. I mean you do hear Allen's words in the book, because
he's talked to other press in the past. Some people have said that they felt
like he was more mysterious after reading the book but that at the same time
you get the sense that he's sort of a bland character to begin with. So in this
case, maybe talking to him would not have lent a whole lot more to the book.
It's the people around him who can tell his story better.
Did a lot of people talk anonymously? A lot of it was off the record. A lot of people are really afraid of this
guy, he's got a lot of money, he operates in a lot of fields and they don't
want to piss him off.
Is he vindictive, in that sense? He wouldn't exactly go directly after somebody, but he might decide not
to ever work with them again, which doesnt sound like the worst thing in the
world, but he'll often hold a small thing against people. Loyalty is very important
What kinds of people were the most helpful in getting the information
that you needed, since Allen was so uncooperative? People who were in a position to benefit from him were really untalkative.
But other people talkedformer employees, people who'd worked with Allen
in the early days of Microsoft, even some current employees. The people who
were most talkative, most cooperative, easy to reach were venture capitalists-people
with money who didn't need his money. Maybe they had done deals with him in
the past or whatever. And those people would be on the record.
Are Allen and Bill Gates still on good terms? They are. Sometimes it's a rocky friendship, but they communicate, hang
out at basketball games, have dinner. There is a friendship. But I'm sure Paul
Allen knows that Bill Gates screwed him over a few times.
It seems like that, I mean he only got 35% of Microsoft [to
Gates's 65%]. That's the first time he got screwed over. And then when Allen went out
on his own, and tried to start a company later on, Gates went straight into
the same market six months later, and basically obliterated Paul Allen's position.
Do you think that he did that purposefully in a vindictive
way? Not that I know much about Allen, but I see Gates as a much more vindictive,
aggressive kind of guy. I think he thought it was a good business opportunity. I also don't think
he cared so much that it was his friend he was going to be knocking out of the
What are some of the main differences in the philosophy and
style of the two? I think it's pretty clear that the differences are that Allen is driven
by ideas and how technology works, and that's completely what drives him. Bill
Gates is interested in how technology works and thinks it's really cool and
has a geek appreciation for it, but he's also a real businessman with a keen
interest in how markets work.
Now that he has so much money, what do you think continues
to drive Allen? He's got a lot of money, yes, but consider where it came from. He wasn't
at Microsoft when it went public, he wasn't there for the company's incredible
rise to the top. He still has to create his own success and prove that he deserves
his money. He goes around saying to people, "There's just so much money,
I don't know what to do with it." Bill Gates, on the other hand, is driven
more by success in business and money.
Why do you think most of Allen's post-Microsoft ventures have
been unsuccessful? He has good ideas but he lacks the follow-through. And he doesn't hire well.
He doesn't really hire people who can execute his ideas very well. He's kind
of a micromanager, but he vacillates between being a micromanager and being
Is it the hierarchy thing? I read that he still invites people
over to his house for movie nights. He does, but he's still distant from his employees. It's not like he mingles
with them and gets to know them any better. He still hangs back and is often
not there. No, his companies have had a hard time succeeding partly because
he has a hard time making tough business decisions-like for one thing, firing
friends he hired who don't work out as good managers. He just doesn't have that
cutthroat business-guy thing in him. He is an inconsistent manager and is really
more concerned with how the technology works than about the bottom line. He
only becomes concerned about the bottom line when it's too late and he's already
poured so much money into it.
Having read a couple of the advance reviews, it sounds like
people who read the book come out with a kind of negative view of him. Having
spent so much time with this character, do you like him, or feel some kind of
sympathy for him? Yeah, I do. I feel a sort of sympathy for him and I've been surprised that
so many people do come away with a sort of negative feeling about him. I think
he has a lot of flaws that he doesn't necessarily see in himself, but I think
that's part of why I feel sympathetic because I've spent so much time looking
at his character and his flaws.
If you were friends with him and could give him one piece of
advice or one thing, what would you say to him, having sort of studied him in
the third person? I guess I would advise him to hire better and back off of his companies.
He just doesn't have the operational skills. I also think he could invest more
in good causes. He's the third richest guy in the country, but in terms of philanthropy
he doesn't even crack the top twenty-five.
Do you think Microsoft will be his most lasting achievement? I do. I mean, I think it's really hard to come up with something so groundbreaking
and so successful, and I think that Micrsoft's success has never really been
in its technology but more in its marketing and business. So, no, I don't think
he'll ever be able to pull off something like Microsoft now.
How do you keep yourself motivated during the writing process? I have a friend who wants to do a book, who asked how I could stay with
one topic for six months, which really does not feel like a very long time.
I was partly motivated because I had a deadline ahead of me.! But the other
thing was that Allen was really interesting. I was motivated largely by the
process of taking this guy who operates in so many different areas and figuring
out where the narrative was.
David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer
and interim editor of mediabistro.com.