A small tech company launched in Albuquerque, New Mexico might never have become Microsoft, the global giant, if not for a question Warren Buffett posed to Bill Gates in the early 1990s.
In a January conversation between the billionaire philanthropists to celebrate their 25 years of friendship, moderator Charlie Rose asked the pair what surprised each of them the most about one another. Gates eagerly fielded the question.
"One of the first questions he asked me was, hey, Microsoft is a small company, IBM is this huge company, why can you do better? Why can't they beat you at the software game that you're playing?" Gates told the audience at Columbia University.
That was in the early 1990s, several years before Microsoft would hit its peak as the largest company on the planet. (Adjusted for inflation, the company's 1999 valuation of $837 billion eclipses Apple's current market value by about $300 billion.)
Throughout those early years, Gates and his co-founder, Paul Allen, had spent much of their time thinking only about how to make the software as good as can be. No one, Gates or Allen included, had really thought to focus on gaining a competitive edge in the market.
Quickly, Gates started incorporating the idea into his thought process. "I always — every day I was thinking about, okay, what advantage do we have, what do we do?" he said.
Throughout most of the 1990s, Microsoft gained its edge over competitors through easy-to-use interfaces in home computers, notably with its Windows operating system. It began tapping into a non-technical customer base that other companies largely ignored. And by 1995, Gates had alerted its employees to the incoming "Internet Tidal Wave," as his internal memo dubbed it, setting the company on course to dominate how people surfed the Web for years to come.
He and Buffett, a businessman 25 years Gates' senior, also began talking more about the ways finance related to the technology industry Gates was building with Microsoft.
"I didn't understand banking, why some get ahead and some don't," he said. "And so I found somebody whose model was rich enough that it helped me understand things that I really wanted to know and we could laugh about things that were a surprise to us."
Even today, Gates said, the relationship he shares with Buffett is one built on curiosity — though oftentimes it's Gates doing the probing.
"I'd say his humility and his sense of humor really stood out in this incredible way," Gates said. "I mean, he enjoys what he does and he shares that with other people. And even when I ask questions that are pretty naive, that he's probably been asked 50 times, he's very nice about it."
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