Bill Gates and Paul Allen

In 1975 there were no incubator, angels, or accelerators.

It’s hard to fathom that 37 years ago, the 90,000-person, global, multi-faceted company where I work was a startup that had a single product. ..even harder to believe, I’ve been working with this company’s products since the beginning, eventually becoming a hardware partner and manufacturer.

…and it’s mind blowing to think that among the thousands of entrepreneurs ideating, innovating, and inventing today, who are putting everything they have into realizing their inspired visions of the future, someone is creating a company that will someday have tens of thousands of employees, all around the world, working on suites of products that change the lives of everyone who use them.

Lots of people have written about the origins of Microsoft and what the founders did to make the company so successful. The Bing Fund team had a specific question, however, very relevant to what we are trying to do with the startups in our program. What helped Microsoft get past the “startup stage” to “critical mass?” What were the key factors to achieving the “ok-now-things-are-really-taking-off” level of success and maintaining it?

We all had our opinions, but then we said, “Hey, why don’t we ask someone who was there?” So we sent e-mail to Microsoft’s longest-term employee, Steve Ballmer, and asked him what he thought.

Here’s what he told us:

Ideas matter: For any startup to reach critical mass, it needs a great idea that is new, unique and valuable to individuals, businesses or both. The idea has to be one the founding team is passionate about. It has to be more than an incremental improvement over what an established company has already done. It has to be differentiated and novel. The idea Bill Gates and Paul Allen had in 1975 was that software powering a personal computer would unleash human creativity and productivity. The core idea still inspires us today to build technology that will radically improve how people learn, work and play.

Be tenacious: An uninterrupted march to greatness is unlikely. Startups are going to have setbacks. World events will happen. Competition will heat up. Teams will evolve. Startups need to stay focused and persevere to break through. Our big breakthrough moment came about 20 years after the company was founded with the release of Windows 95, a product that propelled the personal computer onto every desk and into every home.

Always be “part” startup: Getting to critical mass is one thing, but staying there is another. It’s incredibly important to maintain a fresh perspective and a willingness to take risks. As a company grows, it’s important to keep incubating new solutions and rethinking the great idea that got you started. Kinect is a terrific example of a technology we incubated, building on our existing entertainment solutions to deliver compelling new experiences for millions of people around the world.

As fast as technology moves, 1975 may seem like a long time ago. The world is a whole different place now, but Steve’s advice is pretty classic. Come up with an idea that has not only brilliance but longevity, so it can remain at the core of what you do; never give up, even if things looks bleak for a time; and always think like a startup.

What I admire about Steve is his sheer force of will. At every moment the guy puts his heart and soul into what he’s doing. For more than 3 decades he’s been more bullish on Microsoft with each passing year. He’d throw himself in front of a bus for this company, and that’s the kind of passion that entrepreneurs need to have, and never lose.