Paul Allen, the Co-founder of Microsoft, spent his early childhood as a seven-year-old in the library of the University of Washington, pulling out books under his father’s supervision, and reading for hours about computers. This early tryst with technology only deepened as his education progressed. When a computer terminal was first set up in his school – where he first met Gates – Allen and a few other computer enthusiasts went “nuts” and spent every free hour they had among the manuals and programs, finally becoming more adept than the teachers themselves.
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His years in Microsoft were fuelled by this passion for computers, but it was only after his illness that he began exploring his other interests. After he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982, the time he took out for recuperation opened his eyes to the importance of enjoying the finer things in life. He recalls in an interview with Fortune Magazine – “After that two-year period, well, I just didn't want to go back to work. I went to Bill and said, “I want to just do something different.””
But before we dive into the “something different” that he dedicated his later years to, it would almost be criminal to not talk of his contributions to Microsoft. The ‘other’ mogul created many milestones for the company, and understanding that is the only way of getting a complete picture of his business psyche.
While at school, Allen and Gates would spend most of their time reading business magazines and talking about the promising future of entrepreneurship, a dream that was for these teenagers, ideal and far-fetched. These dreams seeped into reality the day Allen found an article in 1971 (a moment so revelatory that they still remember the page number of the article – “page 73 or something”) about Intel’s 4004 chip, the world’s first microprocessor, and realised the potential of microprocessors.
This ‘whoa!’ moment set the wheels turning into the business world as it inspired the duo’s first venture, Traf-O-Data, which used Intel’s subsequent 8008 chip to derive traffic volume data. Allen’s passion for computers remained unquenched during his days at the University of Washington, from which he eventually dropped out, driven by the need to start his own business.
It was his thirst for knowledge and his keen sense for opportunities that changed the course of Microsoft not once, but several times. When he found another article which spoke of the “World’s first minicomputer kit,” which was MITS’ Altair 8800, the duo set out to market their version of the BASIC programing language that they had designed for Traf-O-Data to make it compatible for Altair. This association with MITS got them a modest office space in a strip mall in Albuquerque, where Microsoft was born. When IBM was on the lookout for programing languages in 1980, it was Allen’s initiative to close a deal that got them Q-DOS Operating System. This proved to be a milestone in Microsoft’s history as they transfigured this to DOS, got it running on IBM’s PC line, and made it the popular choice among Operating Systems.
Although Microsoft was officially incorporated only in 1981, a year before Allen took ill, he played a major role in its first steps as an infant business, and did so for seven years. After he officially resigned, being the multi-talented man that he is, he hurtled towards his various passions with a new sense of adventure. And being the businessman that he is, he showed us, in the ways elaborated below, that a good business is one that is close to the heart.
At a very young age, Allen would dig out books on WWII fighter planes and study their engine designs. This interest was carried onto adulthood as he has now painstakingly curated and preserved WWII planes in working conditions. He invested in the SpaceShipOne commercial plane which successfully put a civilian in suborbital space. He announced the creation of Stratolaunch Systems, which comes with an ambitious aim of launching satellites from mid-air into low earth orbit.
Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Allen got his first electric guitar at the age of 16. He played rhythm guitar in his earlier band, Grown Men, and independently produced their album. Presently, he plays the guitar for his band, Paul Allen and the Underthinkers, which released their debut album in 2013.
Allen founded the Vulcan Productions, a documentary and film production company, as an entertainment arm of Vulcan Inc. Allen’s interest in films stems from his need to highlight thoughts, concepts, and issues that are in need of public attention. His films have won prestigious awards, like the Emmy for Rx for Survival–A Global Health Challenge, and the Webby award for We the Economy.
He founded the Allen Institute of Brain Science, which has till date contributed $500 million towards significant projects such as The Human Brain Project, which took on the immense task of mapping the human brain. He also founded the Allen Institute for Cell Science to fund research that better illuminates diseases. His interest in technology resulted in the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence to advance the promising field of AI.
Allen didn’t leave the sports arena unconquered as he now has three sports franchises – Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle Seahawks, and Settle Founders FC. He had always been a keen follower of the sporting world but his investment in it has, according to him, helped him become a bigger part of it.
Paul Allen is possibly one of the few businessmen whose profitable investments have gone hand-in-hand with his philanthropic interests – a middle ground that is so rarely achieved by a profit-oriented ecosystem. Despite another unfortunate encounter with cancer, this time non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, in 2009, Paul Allen still seems to be going strong!