Paul Allen, the Quiet Billionaire with Fingerprints All Over Seattle, Shows the Hometown Crowd a Bit of Himself

4/25/11Follow @xconomy

Even in his hometown, Paul Allen can seem like an enigma. His influence is everywhere, from sports teams to politics to real estate development. But because of his famously private ways, Allen is only occasionally seen and very rarely heard.

That made last Friday’s long public interview at Town Hall an interesting event. It was part of the publicity tour for Allen’s new autobiography, “Idea Man,” which already has garnered significant national press coverage. With that backdrop, many in the audience surely had a good idea of the headline material from the book itself: High school and startup days with Bill Gates, and semi-shocking tales of his co-founder’s ruthlessness in business.

So perhaps the most revealing thing about this appearance was the sense you could get of Paul Allen as an actual person, not some impossibly rich abstraction who builds crazy-looking museums, owns enormous yachts, and loses vast sums of money on investments.

“As everybody knows, I’m a pretty private person and I don’t do a whole lot of this. So I may not be here next year,” Allen said with a faux-sarcastic tone, drawing laughs from the audience.

I did sense that people weren’t quite sure what kind of guy he’d be at the beginning. Would he be stilted and geeky? Off-putting and too private? But the audience warmed up to Allen pretty quickly, helped along by his humorous asides and generally relaxed bearing.

Seattle is forever stuck with a little-brother mindset, not wanting to rocket past its slower small-town roots but also carrying a chip on its shoulder about not quite measuring up as a great American metropolis. People who live here want their representatives to be world-class, iconoclastic, giving, and not too stuffy. I thought Allen gave them some of what they were looking for.

The main message that came through, one that others have found in the book, is that Allen sees himself as a big-picture creative thinker—I guess the title “Idea Man” gives that away pretty quickly. In his Microsoft days, he portrays that quality as the necessary leavening element to Gates’ hard-driving, relentlessly focused business sense and work ethic.

“I basically get very, very excited about the creative process and creating things and having ideas,” Allen told interviewer Todd Bishop, of GeekWire. “When you see those ideas realized, it’s just a wonderfully rewarding thing.”

Although the autobiography is pretty clearly aimed at getting more credit for the success and innovations of Microsoft’s early days, Allen acknowledged that big ideas aren’t much use without the right team of people to make things happen. He also said there was a bit of luck involved in Microsoft’s genesis, … Next Page »

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