Trapped in orbit: Bill Gates in the business founder’s dilemma

Trapped in orbit: Bill Gates in the business founder’s dilemma

Earlier this week, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen celebrated his Seattle Hawks winning the Super Bowl while his former business partner, Bill Gates, still struggles to escape the clutches of the software giant they founded 40 years ago.

After a long drawn-out process, software giant Microsoft has finally chosen its replacement for CEO Steve Ballmer. However, founder Bill Gates finds himself firmly trapped in the company’s orbit.

Hoodie wearing Satya Nadella‘s ascension to Microsoft CEO was probably the poorest held secret in the tech industry having been openly reported for several weeks.

Nadella has a massive task ahead of him as the industry that’s been so lucrative for Microsoft over the past 30 years evolves to deal with the post-PC era.

How Nadella manages Microsoft’s transition will define his business career and tenure at the top job, it will also determine the company’s position in a marketplace where PCs running Windows are no longer relevant.

The biggest news from Microsoft’s announcement though was that Bill Gates will step down as board chairman and take a new position as ‘founder and technology advisor’.

“Microsoft also announced that Bill Gates, previously Chairman of the Board of Directors, will assume a new role on the Board as Founder and Technology Advisor, and will devote more time to the company, supporting Nadella in shaping technology and product direction. John Thompson, lead independent director for the Board of Directors, will assume the role of Chairman of the Board of Directors and remain an independent director on the Board.”

Despite leaving the CEO role over a decade ago, Gates finds himself back in a hands-on role at the company.

The value of Bill Gates

It’s questionable what value Gates is going to add in the role of ‘technology advisor’ as Microsoft’s markets are very different to those the company was founded in and came to dominate in the 1980s and 90s.

For Nadella, it’s not exactly a vote of confidence from the board in appointing the company’s founder to hover over his shoulder offering helpful advice.

On a personal level this must be disappointing for the founder and former CEO as well in that his mind is on far greater topics such as eliminating malaria through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Trapped by Microsoft’s gravity

Gates’ situation though is a classic example of a business founder who’s never been able to get out of the orbit of their business. Despite their best efforts, they keep being dragged back to give a helping hand.

At least Gates has at least been able to step away to some degree, many baby boomers with smaller businesses are going to be locked into their companies as Gen X or Y entrepreneurs don’t have the funds to pay what the proprietors need to retire.

Those boomer entrepreneurs are going to work in their businesses until either they or their venture is put to rest.

Bill Gates’ dilemma though shows how tough it is for business founders to escape the gravitational pull of their creations, even when it’s as big a business as Microsoft.

Paul Allen showed how to step away from a business and is enjoying life. Bill Gates’ story though is much more typical for business founders trapped in the enterprises they built.

Paul Wallbank is the publisher of Networked Globe, his personal blog Decoding The New Economy charts how our society is changing in the connected century.



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