A 'Soft Summer with Gates & Co.

"My 10 weeks in Seattle gave me a deep appreciation for the extraordinary level of talent at Microsoft and in tech generally"

It's been a while since my last journal entry, and there's far too much to write about so I'll opt for the cocktail conversation highlights. When I first noodled through what it was I wanted to do for my B-school summer, I knew certainly I wanted to do something different. In other words, no banking, no consulting. (It's harder than it sounds to break ranks.)

After emerging only marginally discouraged and drained from Wharton's Designated Interview Period (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/06, "Grant Allen: Trial by Interview") and deciding on Microsoft (MSFT)—O.K, so maybe I wasn't really pushing the envelope here—I was offered the opportunity to work with a local venture fund, Liberty Associated Partners, based on my work with Wharton's Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

I was at Liberty, a Philadelphia-based evergreen fund with a "few hundred million" in deployed capital, for less than a month. In those four short weeks, though, I had the good fortune to work closely with one of their portfolio companies, Jingle Networks, whose main (actually, currently only) business is 1-800-FREE-411, a free directory assistance service (http://www.free411.com).

As opposed to dialing 411 and paying $1.50-plus to Verizon (VZ) or whomever your landline or cell-phone carrier is, you call 1-800-373-3411 and get your number for free in exchange for listening to a short, usually 10-second, advertisement. It's a slick little Google (GOOG) model and a ridiculous value proposition for end users. As one of the VCs investing in Jingle often remarked, the business model was great because it shrank a large market.

Jingle had just received $26 million in Series B funding from Liberty and three other VCs, including Josh Kopelman's First Round Capital (Josh is a Wharton grad who started Half.com and sold it to eBay (EBAY), one of three companies he's taken public. I'd say he's doing O.K. He's also a wonderful guy I've had the pleasure of meeting a few times around school.)

Since this summer, Jingle has received a $30 million Series C round; I'll defer commenting on whether this was due to my insightful analysis. Since I can't say much more about my work with Liberty and Jingle, I'll just say that you should test the service out for yourself and let us know what you think of it.

Seattle Can Be Sunny

A few short days after passing off my recommendations to the Jingle CEO, I loaded up my iPod with a slew of Nirvana, Death Cab for Cutie, and similar grunge/alt ilk, and hopped a long flight to the Pac Northwest. From the outset, Microsoft made my 10 weeks in Seattle more than comfortable. All that rainy day, doom-and-gloom stuff you hear about Seattle was half-baked from what I could see, or maybe Microsoft had just paid off the weather to stay nice for the two months we were in residence!

Seattle-ans/Seattleites (I still don't know which it is) are uniformly nice, if not surprisingly independent, and every weekend and evening moment was spent engaged in some sort of outdoor activity like biking, hiking, kayaking, etc. It was this last point that led me to believe it really was going to get crappy come October; residents were simply, and smartly, making the most of the nice weather. Regardless, the month of July was heaven: clean, clear blue skies, 60-degree evenings, fresh seafood, good music, and active, interesting company nearly every night.

Face Time with Top Managers

The software goliath provided a superlative summer experience, exposing its 67 MBA interns to leadership from all corners of the organization, including the corner office. We really were lucky to meet with most org heads, including Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Jeff Raikes, Robbie Bach, Kevin Johnson, and J Allard, the brains and passion behind the Xbox initiative (no comment on Zune), among many others.

Wharton accounted for 15 of the interns in Redmond, the most of any B-school by a factor of two. I guess that's a good thing, although it was nice to meet some folks from other schools, including HBS, University of Washington (pronounced "You Dub"), and Kellogg. Almost all the MBA interns lived in a downtown Seattle condo called Harbor Steps, which was new and nice. Not that this was the norm, but I ended up with a two-bedroom place all to myself with a view of Mount Rainier out one large window and Elliott Bay out another large picture window. All for the bargain price of $650 per month!

I also got a heavily subsidized rental car, which I wrecked and quickly received a replacement when Avis realized I worked for "the man." No joke, Microsoft runs that town. Sorry, Starbucks (SBUX), Boeing (BA), Amazon (AMZN), and Nordstrom (JWN) folks, but it's kind of scary how Gates is the wizard of Emerald City.

The free gym is the largest in the country, the MS campus is sprawling and green, and its products are used across the globe. You can work from almost anywhere in the world, anytime, and you get a card called the Prime Card, which gets you great deals everywhere. Wanna watch Superman 3-D at the IMAX? $3. Wanna go to the best restaurant in Seattle, Canlis? Free second entrée. And did I mention I got a new car gratis after running into the back of a Land Rover? This, of course, because I was busy pecking away e-mails on the new Windows Mobile Smartphone I'd been given.

Dinner at the Gateses

Two weeks in, we were surprised with a backyard dinner party at Bill Gates' house. After being whisked through offsite security, we were taken in a caravan of small, nondescript white vans down to his estate on the edge of Lake Washington, a five-acre plot you can see from the bridge you cross going to work from downtown everyday. The house itself was absolutely stunning.

As an architecture buff, I was blown away by the Pacific Northwest stylings and "extreme detail" applied by James Cutler to the 50,000-square-foot main residence. Materials and detailing were superb: no visible electrical outlets, exquisite metal detailing and joints at the end of hand-hewn hardwood beams, hidden gates and doors, plasma screens that displayed various artistic masterpieces—and that we were told had the capability of morphing into your preferred style of art should you be lucky enough of a VIP to wear a microchip encoded with your preferences.

Aside from the swag, I gained an enormous amount in terms of learning at Microsoft. I was lucky to be staffed in one of the company's more entrepreneurial groups, Mobile/Embedded Devices, within Robbie Bach's recently re-orged EDD (Entertainment & Devices Div.) business group. If you think about most product groups having a series of increasingly tactical marketing groups from early-stage product planning (the most forward-looking) down to field sales force and technical evangelism (the most implementation- and sales-focused), I was one step removed from the U.S. subsidiary in a group termed the Business Marketing Organization (BMO).

Real-World Lessons

There is a BMO for most geographies and a separate BMO for each product group. Each BMO is responsible for translating high-level, global marketing strategy, communications/collateral, and go-to-market (GTM) initiatives into executional reality, a process that often involves campaign execution, cross-product collaboration, carrier negotiations, and other tactical decision-making. The BMO is hands down where the rubber meets the road and was a fantastic wakeup call from the theoretical arm-waving you might see in an MBA marketing classroom.

Having never been in a large company necessitating such a granular view of marketing, it was exhilarating and often overwhelming to see all the groups involved in bringing a product like Windows Mobile, Microsoft's smartphone OS, to market. I can't get into the details of what I worked on, but suffice it to say the work was exciting and made an impact. I was surprised how much responsibility I was given to move between groups, meet with high-level managers across the org, and propose an actual FY07 roll-out plan and budget for new Windows Mobile U.S. initiatives. To learn more about Windows Mobile and some of the initiatives I (may or may not have) worked on, check out http://www.windowsmobile.com. And, forgive the plug, but the new BlackJack (http://www.samsungblackjack.com/) is amazing.

My 10 weeks in Seattle gave me a deep appreciation for the extraordinary level of talent at Microsoft and in tech generally, for the operational exactitude necessary to profitably deploy new technologies, and for how little what I had learned about marketing via textbook and classroom actually mattered when it came to being a creative, capable marketeer. The experience didn't necessarily leave me jaded about the value of my precious MBA, but it did underscore many of the comments I had received from VC professionals and other successful operators/entrepreneurs (including the Jingle CEO) about getting into the "real world" ASAP.

This is necessary because, put simply, it's just different operating within a company. Straying from the analytically and intellectually comfortable, albeit challenging, environs of consulting, financial engineering, et al, requires light years more leadership, tenacity, and patience. To succeed, you have to go beyond provision of the "right" answer; also required is the right process, people, and political messaging, things that I have begun learning much more through my varied extracurriculars at Wharton and through my short time in Seattle than anywhere else.