In 1995, when Windows 95 launched, one of Microsoft’s biggest customers, Staples, had a drawing for people to have breakfast with the head of global sales, Steve Ballmer.
Still with Microsoft and now CEO of one of the most important companies in the world, at the time Steve Ballmer was known to few outside of Redmond Washington, various tech circles or those who memorize the Forbes 400 list (which indicated that Mr. Ballmer, at the time, had a net worth of $3 billion or so).
I eagerly filled out my drawing forms – about 300 of them, while watching Seinfeld. The event was small in scale and when they called to tell me I had won I could hear a little hesitation in the voice of the caller….surely they were wondering who would enter a contest 300 times to meet a Microsoft executive.
My future wife and I woke up early to drive to the private club that Ballmer was speaking at…he arrived exactly on time, but was a little flustered that he wasn’t 15 minutes early as he had planned. “I couldn’t get a cab”, he said as he carried his laptop bag and coat like any normal mortal. I had assumed that billionaires did not need to worry about little things like taxi cabs - but I’ve learned over the years that the ultra rich are a lot more like everyone else, just with different sets of problems and opportunities.
Ballmer gave a great speech to the 10 or so of us who gathered and even gave us his email address. He walked up and shook my hand and I was a little dumbfounded, one of the rare times I’ve ever been speechless…so many things I wanted to learn and ask him but I just smiled and said hello.
Back then email was much different: almost a badge of geek cred. Remember, even AOL, was once for ‘geeks only’. I eagerly jotted down the email address he gave me and sent him a nice thank you note. I even sent him one of those “10 signs you know you’ve been at a computer too long”, joke emails. I cringe at the thought now, but in 1995 these things hadn’t been circulated five billion times, they were actually new and funny, and most people only got 3-5 emails a day – junk email was unheard of. A busy and connected tech guy like Ballmer probably was one of the first to be in the 100 email a day club, what a status symbol. I would guess he now needs a dedicated server at Microsoft just to sort his junk mail and has a small army of assistants to filter them further, none of whom would find the slightest amusement in a last-decade joke email.
I asked Mr. Ballmer what advice he had for a small business owner.
About two hours later came the reply, he thanked me for the note and the joke and then the best part, the advice. Obviously not a canned response, written in lowercase with dashes were the words I’ve remembered ever since then.
“bruce- some advice for best help for small businesses and other businesses — we’ve worked hard on some great tools. excel has some new capabilities and can make your spreadsheets improve –manage your business better– also, powerpoint more advanced, ability to provide high quality presentations- have you tried newest version? will make easier to preset – and access database- also, we will have many marketing tools and internet development so customers can interact with you on internet, keep an eye out on the internet development for online store and development.”
My first reaction was “THATs the business advice?” This great business leader takes time from his day, time that’s worth about $3000 a minute and he uses this valuable time to email little ole me and tell me to buy his product? That’s the advice? IS THAT ALL HE THINKS ABOUT IS CUSTOMERS AND HIS PRODUCT? ……
Thank you Steve Ballmer.