Bill Gates famously dropped out of Harvard and, while his long-term friend and Microsoft’s former CEO Steve Ballmer graduated from Harvard, he later dropped out of business school.
If ever there was an example of a leading businessman and entrepreneur that reached the top without an MBA degree, it is Steve Ballmer. Back then, before Microsoft was the global technology giant it is today, people told him not to leave Stanford Graduate School of Business and join Bill Gates' start-up, he says.
Oh how wrong they were. You can’t paint a picture of Microsoft’s rich tech history without Steve. Until a month ago today, he was the company’s Chief Executive Officer, a post he held since 2000.
Steve joined Microsoft back in 1980 as the company’s first business manager, and his roles since then have included senior vice president of sales and support, senior vice president of systems software and vice president of marketing. Under his leadership, Microsoft more than tripled revenue and doubled profits.
Steve still retains a board position and a 4 per cent stake in the company, and is there to provide governance and oversight for the leadership team, he says.
He is, perhaps, one of the most successful business school drop-outs and tech entrepreneurs. But he shared with a delegation of MBA students today his secrets of success – and very well received advice for both aspiring tech entrepreneurs, and those hoping to join major corporations in management positions.
Know how to recruit
Speaking at an event at Oxford Said Business School, which BusinessBecause covered, the former Microsoft CEO told MBAs that, to succeed in entrepreneurship, they must know how to recruit. “I dropped out of school to join Microsoft mostly because I knew Bill from college [Harvard]. Being a world leader in something big with smart people is a good place to be, whether you start a company or join one,” says Steve.
MBA entrepreneurs must learn to recruit to be successful, he says. “That was the most valuable thing I added to Microsoft. It’s the lifeblood. I didn’t know much, but I got the hiring machine going because I interviewed for a lot of jobs,” Steve says.
It’s also important to pay attention to accounting and pricing when at business school, he says. “The only difference between companies that start and fail is that one thinks about how to make money, because they think through revenue prices and the business model, and that’s under attended to generally,” Steve says.
Advice for start-ups
Asked what the best piece of advice he ever received was, he replied that if you’re going to go into a start-up, you have to give it your all. “If you’re going to do a start-up, you’ve got to be in and stay in, not just for six months or a year, and take a long-term view,” he says.
Motivating employees and making them love the company is equally important, Steve says. “You better be able to say you love your company. How will any of your employees if you don’t?” he says.
“When you’re small enough, if they don’t love the company, they leave. Everybody’s all-in. But that fails when you get a few thousand people, or when you get 20-30-40 thousand people, and you don’t see the same dynamic growth. What I would hope is person for person our people care more than the 100,000 other people that work at our competitors.”
Microsoft may be world leaders in tech, but Steve admits they have made mistakes. He dismisses the view that start-ups fail fast. “Really great companies modify their ideas. They see the core proposition needs to change… and you keep working it until you get it to be successful,” he says.
“Only a small percentage are colossal successes. You have to set your mind on having the tenacity to stick with the idea or a modification of an idea. While things are faster today, the notion of taking a long-term point of view is a thing missing in most companies – big, small or start-up.”
A handle on all areas of your business
Entrepreneurs need to engage with every aspect of their business, whether they like it or not, Steve says. “You can’t not like anything; you’re not allowed to. If you consciously as a leader can’t embrace it, you will screw it up because the people you trust [to run it on your behalf] will feel underappreciated,” he says.
“If you want to lead a company you have to want to lead the whole company. You can’t shy any from anything.”
Managing time is essential and, although it’s difficult to get a perfect work-life balance, the busier you become the more important it is to control time well, Steve says.
Entrepreneurship is increasingly popular at business school. And in a world where start-ups are increasing in number, having a good idea is essential. “Even when you try to recruit smart people, a lot of it won’t be your personal charisma, it will be the power of your idea,” he says.
“Do you have a good idea? Is it interesting enough? Is it compelling enough? People can get carried away with everything else… capital, charisma, people leadership. But try to get an idea that’s powerful enough to really be worth pursuing.
“An interesting idea that somebody wants to use and buy… eventually you’ll collect money for it. You can change the idea but you’ve got to start with something. And that’s true whether it’s a start-up or a big company.”
MBAs shouldn’t underestimate the power of luck, nor should they pursue an idea just for the sake of it, Steve says.
The future of entrepreneurship
The former Microsoft CEO also added that globalization is far from over. As world markets continue to grow, there are business opportunities in almost any industry. “There is huge opportunity for wealth creation. The ability to use tech in business to transform the way you service customers is enormous,” Steve says.
“Healthcare is barely touched, education is barely touched, big data and machine learning, and having tech that learns about the world and customers [is still growing].”
He also pointed towards the healthcare sector for future innovation. “I won’t speak for Microsoft and its future product plan but… we certainly have experimented with products we have put in the market,” Steve says.
“I do believe tools in health delivery as well as individuals to be empowered on their own health will be huge opportunities.”