William Henry Gates, known to his friends and the rest of us as Bill, is probably the world’s most prominent entrepreneur. From a teenager’s interest in computer programming, he founded and built Microsoft to its position of global dominance of the vast personal computer market. He is certainly one of the world’s richest individuals. Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship and enterprise are today very fashionable topics. The self-made, intelligent and visionary individual, who sets up a business that eventually arrives on everyone’s ‘must have’ list and sees off all rivals, is now the focus of press, film and TV. Entrepreneurs are now role models. Yet, in 1955, when Bill was born in Seattle, very few people ever mentioned the word ‘entrepreneur’. Even as recently as 1975, when Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft, calling a business person an entrepreneur was often a term of abuse in Britain, if not in the US.
However, merely being extremely rich is not the same thing as being an entrepreneur. There are plenty of people with inherited wealth who did not have to lift a finger or take a risk. The term was first used to refer to merchants and traders who were prepared to bear the risk of buying goods and services at certain (fixed) prices, to be sold elsewhere or at another time for uncertain future prices. They were people who had the skills and energy to spot opportunities in trade and to act on their judgement. In the 1920s, Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist, took the view that entrepreneurs are not opportunists but are energetic and competitive people who seek to gain an edge over their rivals by creating and adopting innovations. By this, he meant not only new goods and services but also novel processes, marketing, distribution, financing and ways of doing business. Thus, ‘modern’ entrepreneurs, in contrast to ‘classic’ entrepreneurs, create their own luck and opportunities. Furthermore, they are controlled rather than unbridled risk-takers. Schumpeter, however, was also interested in the motivation of the entrepreneur, which he ascribed to three main drives – a desire for social status, the joy of creativity or a desire to conquer, win and beat rivals (what is now often called need for achievement). So, what sort of entrepreneur is Bill Gates – classic or modern?
"merely being extremely rich is not the same thing as being an entrepreneur"
Bill Gates was born in Seattle to a father who was a leading lawyer there and a mother who was part of a prominent banking family. So, young Bill had no problem with social status and the family was not short of money. However, there is evidence that Bill was driven by a joy of creativity. As a boy, he was fascinated by computers and programming. He even managed to convince his teachers to let him drop maths so that he could pursue programming. At the age of 14, Bill and his school friend, (and future Microsoft partner) Paul Allen, converted an Intel processor into a traffic counter and earned $20,000 each for themselves. Six years later, in 1975, Paul talked Bill into dropping out of Harvard and travelling halfway across the country to New Mexico, in order to develop an interpreter of the BASIC programming language for the new Altai microcomputer. This opportunity gave birth to Microsoft but was clearly driven not by a desire to beat competitors but more by a love of doing something new, with new technologies, in a new industry.
Within ten years, however, Microsoft was creating its own opportunities and was on the path to becoming the $50 billion, 80,000 employee, multinational, dominant force that it is today in computing. The big opportunity came in 1981, when IBM turned to Microsoft to produce the operating systems for its new personal computers. To meet the IBM deadline, Microsoft bought the rights to an existing system for $50,000 and adapted it into the PC-DOS. Each IBM PC sold included the Microsoft system yet Microsoft retained the rights to sell to other customers. As clones of the IBM PC began to flood the market, they too were mostly using the Microsoft disk operating system (MS-DOS). As the money poured in, Microsoft stepped up its R&D so that it soon began to lead, rather than follow, market developments. So, Bill moved from being something in between an enthusiastic hobbyist, and a classical opportunity spotting entrepreneur, into a thoroughly modern entrepreneur who savours the creating of new opportunities. Bill now clearly enjoys being a winner.
Find out more
- What makes an entrepreneur?
- Are you an entrepreneur?
- Just Do It - start-up advice
- Video extras: Bill and Paul's excellent adventure
- Is Microsoft finally breaking the mould?