Part one of a two-part article, by Gary Flood The kid blinks behind his thick geek glasses and smiles shyly at me. Xinyi Wang, why don’t you tell us something about yourself? asks Michael Saylor, co-founder, chief executive, and majority shareholder of soon-to-be-public Relational On-Line Analytical Processing specialist Microstrategy Inc, of Vienna, Virginia. We’re standing […]
Part one of a two-part article, by Gary Flood
The kid blinks behind his thick geek glasses and smiles shyly at me. Xinyi Wang, why don’t you tell us something about yourself? asks Michael Saylor, co-founder, chief executive, and majority shareholder of soon-to-be-public Relational On-Line Analytical Processing specialist Microstrategy Inc, of Vienna, Virginia. We’re standing in front of a group of young, tense looking people with intelligent faces and preppy clothes hunched over big monitors in a Microstrategy ‘Boot Camp,’ the name that is given to the intensive six week training course that all new Microstrategists have to pass.
Even though the bulk of the curriculum is highly technical database theory – you’ll know the difference between a star schema and a snowflake, a sparse aggregate, or even a complex sparsely-aggregated multi-snowflake, by the end – even the non- Computer Science graduates destined for marketing or sales have to graduate the course. But these people are used to passing tests. Though Xinyi may stand out a bit even in Microstrategy; at 19, he’s already graduated with a Bachelors from a Chinese university and picked up two Masters degrees, one in Mathematics and one in Computer Science, from a US one. Unusually, it wasn’t an Eastern Ivy League school. Saylor, who attended MIT, and then worked briefly at Du Pont before forming Microstrategy eight years ago at the age of 24, seems to have something of a thing for only picking staff from schools like Dartmouth, Cornell, Yale, and Harvard, the names of which trip endlessly from the resumes, and lips, of nearly all of his 240 employees. If having a 19 year old genius – who turned down 15 job offers to come work for Saylor instead – in your company is unusual, that’s not the only striking thing about this outfit. A Brit newcomer relates a story of her orientation session. Everyone with one degree sit down, asked the co-ordinator. About half the room did. Everyone with two degrees sit down, brought about a third of the remainder to their seats. Everyone with three degrees sit down, was an invitation that still left a goodly number of rocket scientists on their feet. But why are these ludicrously talented and bright people, with more degrees than a thermometer, working for a fairly obscure ROLAP company which is still only about a $30m operation, eight years after its founding, and not at Microsoft Corp, Oracle Corp, or Hewlett-Packard Co? And not even in Silicon Valley, but at a faceless mall just outside the Beltway surrounding Washington, DC? Because Microstrategy is quietly building a reputation in Eastern computer science dorms as a place where the elite go, a place that may one day become as important as the company Saylor half-unconsciously keeps bringing up in conversation, Microsoft. Microstrategy seems to be a company that wants management books written about it one day. We’re all very smart people who were all at the tops of our classes, says Charles Veley, director, corporate development a Harvard man: We’re taking the best aspects of top management consulting firms and facets of the great software companies. Saylor, who sometimes comes over as about as modest as Larry Ellison on speed, but who is actually rather shy, puts it another way: We’re into building a great institution here, not even just a great technology organization. Hence the talk of needing brilliance at every level of the company, not just at the top; of the fact that only three people, including himself, can OK hires; and why sometimes you feel you’re in some hothouse Wall St brokerage firm right in the fat and happy days of the 1980s, not Virginia in 1997. If not there, then maybe Andersen Consulting, an organization which similarly recruits only the creme de la creme, also puts them under insane pressure, and also tries to fashion a feeling in its recruits that they have joined the Best of the Best. But Microstrategy’s approach to fostering esprit de corps extends to cultural and social bonding within the company, too. Saylor spent $1m last year on a set of company-wide retreats, including ‘universities’ and a $400,000 sea cruise, the photos from which are displayed proudly in reception. And like any great leader, he really loves his troops, and has no embarrassment about talking of them in terms of being his family. And also like great historical figures, he has no problem with The Vision Thing. When asked about what inspires him, he bounds up and unzips a large black laptop carrying bag, which has inside not a Thinkpad but two huge, fat leather bound volumes. This is the first and final volume of a series of 11 called The History Of Civilisation, by Will Durant. Saylor unselfconsciously reads from the preface in his high-pitched, almost adolescent voice. What really knocks him out about Mr Durant’s opus is that he wrote the first volume in the depths of the Great Depression, in 1935, and he finished the last of the series in 1975 – forty continuous years of dedication to his idea of excellence. One gets the idea that Saylor wants to do something just as admirable – and also that he’s also maybe as crazy, in the right way, as old Will himself. Crazy is an unfair word: it’s just a way for an outsider to label the aura of the kind of driven individuals who really make their mark on the world. Saylor and his Ivy Leaguers have built a company without a penny of outside capital that has been growing at 120% for the last three years, and which will probably hit $50m revenue when he takes it public in the third quarter. Time and again the model comes up: Microsoft did it without any outside capital either; our growth rate parallels Microsoft’s first eight years; like Microsoft, we have great continuity in our senior team; and so forth. Saylor’s even built a stash of cash – $10m – like Microsoft so that he doesn’t have to yo-yo about to meet his quarters, as he will shortly have to start doing for the Street. And even more obviously, Saylor’s tag line for Microstrategy is somewhat reminiscent of the world’s largest independent software company; instead of a computer on every desktop, we have a ‘crystal ball’ on every desktop. This refers to his dream of building ‘query tone’ – whereby just like dial tone allows anyone to call anyone else on the planet who has a phone, so will users start using any computer to interrogate any and all databases through the Web, something he also sometimes calls ‘consumer DSS decision support systems’.
This will be achieved by large corporations building gigantic data warehouses that will let us all access public available data or things like reservations, demographic and credit card databases via the personal computer or phone, fax, pager, or TV. Far fetched? You must be still using CP/M. Saylor, who still plays in a rock band, may one day become as big a personality in high technology circles, which increasingly means society, as Gates, or Steve Jobs, say. Though he may still flub it, he’s got the brains, the drive, the intensity, think James Woods talking about databases, the chutzpah, to go all the way. After all, as he couldn’t bear not to sniff at one point, Bill Gates is proud that he didn’t finish college. But then it was only Harvard – not MIT.