“Be all-in or all-out,” Ballmer urges students

“If you’re going to do a job, do a job,”

Steve Ballmer dropped out of business school after just one year to join the fledgling Microsoft Corporation, before coming its first business manager in 1980 and CEO from 2000 until he stepped down in February 2014.  

His advice to anyone planning a start-up was just the same: “If you’re going to do something, do it heart, body and soul, and really care. Have the sort of brain that is always thinking about it and caring about it and worrying about it … There are disadvantages to this sort of personality, but seriously, if you’re going to be one of those people who do their own start-up, you’ve got to be all-in or all-out… not ‘all-in for six months and see how things go’ – no start-ups do that well, that quickly. You gotta be in, and stay in and take a long-term view.”

The ebullient former CEO was being interviewed by Professor Peter Tufano, Dean of the Saïd Business School and a longstanding friend, in front of a packed audience of students and alumni. In a wide-ranging conversation full of laughs, hand-clapping and sound advice for budding entrepreneurs and future leaders, Ballmer frequently returned to this theme.

Microsoft, he said, was like his baby, his fourth child. He nurtured it, helped it to grow and succeed, and his greatest joy will be to see it flourish after he has gone. “I hope anyone in this room who is planning to start a company, I hope you love your company. And you’d better. Because if you don’t love your company, how will your employees?”

When one student admitted to “not liking” the financial and accounting aspects of business, Ballmer countered “You can’t not like anything - If as a leader you can’t embrace it, you will screw it up. The people who are doing the job will feel underappreciated.” He was clear that this does not mean that you have to be good at everything – he himself was never a software writer, for example – but that you can only engage with people and build their trust by really being interested in what they do, by asking questions, and getting feedback.

Understandably, given this outlook, Ballmer was unimpressed by the “Succeed quickly, fail fast” rhetoric currently surrounding tech start-ups. “Really great companies … don’t fail fast,” he said. “They may modify their ideas. They may see that their core proposition needs to change. But they see that [they’ve got a] a great team that’s really fired up, that’s found a fertile area, and they keep working at it until it’s absolutely successful.”

Microsoft itself, he conceded, had made mistakes in the last ten years and lost ground, notably in the area of mobile. But, “If we don’t succeed, our job is not to give up and go home. It’s to try to continue the initiative but to catch the next wave of innovation.” And he saw plenty of future waves to catch, believing that devices will continue to change for decades to come.

As Tufano continued to question him about how to build a start-up that would grow and last, two further themes emerged. The first was the importance of the right people. He joined Microsoft because of the people - “I dropped out of school to join Microsoft, mostly because I knew Bill Gates from college, and he was the smartest guy I knew.”  Once there, he believes that the most valuable thing he did was to get “the hiring machine” going, stressing that recruitment is the life-blood of a small company. “Everybody’s out there, ‘Who’s the best?’, ‘Who’s the brightest?’, ‘How do we get them?’... Even up until the last minute at Microsoft, the last thing I did was a recruiting call.” He believes that, “Our people care more than the people who work for our competitors.”

But he also urged students to pay attention to accounting and measurement, to understand pricing, and to get the business model right from the start. This last element might be unfashionable, but he believes it is the difference between a start-up that is going to succeed and one that will fail

Finally, although he remains a very interested director of Microsoft, now he has retired he assured the audience that he will be looking around for a new set of things to be passionate about. And he’s going to take his own advice and not “default to something obvious”, taking the time instead to think about what really excites him. Whatever it turns out to be, you can bet that he’ll be doing it heart, body, and soul.

Steve Ballmer: Microsoft & my passion for business