In this interview with Entrepreneur feature writer Scott S. Smith, Gates discusses his management philosophy, career lessons and future as an entrepreneur of the next millennium:
Scott S. Smith:What hiring and managing practices most differentiate Microsoft from other companies?
Bill Gates: Hiring smart people has been the single most important thing we've done as a company from the very beginning. Paul Allen and I started out hiring our friends, but always with an eye to people who had a lot of passion for what they were doing and who were very, very bright. Our recruiting department works very hard to find the right people for our culture here. We also offer our employees a way to share in the company's long-term success and we encourage people to look around the company for new challenges. When you have smart people working for you, you want to keep them stimulated and engaged. We've worked hard to make that possible at Microsoft.
Smith:What do big companies do that small firms should emulate?
Gates: I actually believe there are a lot of areas where big business and small business can learn from one another. Large companies recognize that effective use of technology is a strategic weapon. This is an area where small business can be overwhelmed and, as a result, may not take advantage of the power of technology available to them. Small businesses currently sit in a very influential spot. Look at the great tools developed specifically for this customer segment. We've worked hard to develop solutions that allow small companies to worry less about technology and focus on their business and their customers.
But large organizations can also learn a lot by watching smaller, more responsive, customer-focused organizations. The Internet means that the rules of competition have changed, and this gives small companies a chance to leverage what they do best-react quickly and develop close relationships with customers-and go up against the biggest of their competitors. Successful small companies also do amazing things with limited resources.
Smith:If you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently?
Gates: We're pretty hardcore about examining what we do well and what we need to improve on. So it's a question I encourage everyone at Microsoft to ask all the time. Our shift to putting the Internet at the center of our products was certainly something we could have done earlier. I think we've executed against that challenge very well, but we probably could have moved it up the list of issues we were tracking earlier than we did.
Smith:If you left Microsoft, what fields would you be interested in starting a business in?
Gates: There are all sorts of incredibly difficult challenges to be met in the software industry, so I would naturally gravitate toward software. But I'm also very interested in biotech and think the advances we're seeing today and the ones to come in the near future are going to revolutionize the world of health care. That would be a fun area to spend more time in. And while Melinda [Gates' wife] and I have been spending more time working with our foundation as it engages some interesting projects, I know I'll spend more time on that later on. For now, though, Microsoft is my career, and I think I have about the best job in the world.
Smith:You have diverse outside interests. Do you think you've learned lessons from any of them that could translate into something an entrepreneur could use in his or her business?
Gates: The one that offers a great example is bridge. I'm a passable player but enjoy studying how other people have played and understanding the strategy behind great players. Bridge is all about great partnerships, developing a reasonable-and achievable-strategy, anticipating what people are going to do and being ready to respond to the unexpected.
Smith:If you were King of the World, what would you change?
Gates: Like a lot of businesspeople, being on the road and away from my family isn't much fun. I don't know how you could change that-but that would be great.
Smith:You've talked about retiring in 10 years. Give us your best guess as to how daily civilian and business life will be different from your life today.
Gates: I've talked about the demands of being a CEO and my thought that I might want to change my role sometime in the future, but I haven't really set up a timetable. Even after I'm CEO, I'll be involved in Microsoft. I would be very involved with customers and in the product-development and technology side of the business, so in some ways, my day-to-day life would be more or less the same. Perhaps less time on the road.