By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Next week William Gates will celebrate his fortieth birthday. The products sold by his company, Microsoft, are used in an estimated 80 percent of the world's personal computers. Recently, Forbes magazine named him the richest man in the country, again, with a personal fortune of about $15 billion. The other Bill Gates is unimpressed.
"Bill Gates," Bill Gates admits, "is pretty bright. And he hasn't made any major mistakes yet. But get him into auto parts and see if he can make it. I don't think he could do it." Which is where Bill Gates of Microsoft and Bill Gates of Rocky Ford Printing Company part ways.
The whole point is that Bill Gates of Rocky Ford could be very, very rich. If he wanted to be, which he doesn't, necessarily. Instead, on this brilliantly sunny and warm September morning, he is inside an abandoned Chevrolet dealership across from the only traffic light in Rocky Ford, straddling a locomotive of a printing press and using a six-inch paint scraper to slop yellow and red and black ink, because that is exactly what he chooses to do.
It's a nice life. But before you try this at home, consider the mathematics. "Eighty percent of things are going to fail in the first three to five years," Bill Gates explains. "That's just the nature of man; there just aren't that many smart people out and around. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is."
"Bill is not a genius," explains Kathi, his wife. "But he's bright. He's a different sort--he sees things differently than most people. He has no fear, absolutely none. Even of big things. The way he sees things, so clear and simple, sometimes you'd think he was prophetic. Sometimes it comes across as arrogance."
For example: "I decided I wanted to start a magazine for entrepreneurs," begins Bill Gates. "I went to the newsstand. I mean, magazines are all over the place. So I said, geez, it's not so hard to do this. You get a computer program and some ads and put it together. It's not a moon shot. From an engineering point of view, I was totally overqualified."
"I'm no genius," he adds. "Bright, maybe."
From the masthead of Midnight Engineering, that magazine:
"ME is dedicated to those individuals interested in creating, developing, producing and distributing high technology products. The magazine is designed around the concept of a half-dozen entrepreneurial engineers sitting around having a beer."
Bill Gates, who likes beer, is an entrepreneurial engineer. Because he is interested in telling you about it, he founded Midnight Engineering, which has a worldwide circulation of somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000. The title refers to the after-hours tinkering during which entrepreneurs do their best work.
Gates publishes the magazine and edits it, too. He is the circulation manager, advertising director and layout specialist. Sometime this month he hopes to become its printer, as well. In this world of desktop publishing, that would be no big deal, except that Bill Gates bought his own press--a hundred-foot-long, cast-iron complication of rods, springs, bars and cogs that weighs as much as a house--and moved it by himself from Boston to Colorado. Where he is in the process of setting it up and running it alone. Bill Gates makes Colorado's self-promoting ranks of telecommuting "lone eagles" look like sissies.
In fact, he is currently conducting a vast economics experiment on himself, again. Here is his latest theory: Do everything yourself, all the time, even if it is running a business that normally takes a dozen or so employees. Or operating a press that usually requires four union-scale pressmen.
He calls this "extreme personal productivity." It can be a tough sell. "I can't talk to anybody about this stuff," Bill Gates says. "If I say, `I can do your job and that guy's job, too,' you're not going to be very comfortable with that. But you can do everything by yourself. It's just a matter of how you think."
For example: "`If you want it right, do it yourself'--I'd heard that for years," he says. "But nobody has ever considered doing everything. I mean everything. What if," he wonders, "you were to build a printing company, but with no employees?"
Mark Bannister, director of the Docking Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank affiliated with Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, learned about Bill Gates through word of mouth. "I had heard that there was this individual guy who was a one-man operation, with an unbelievable amount of creativity and originality," he says. "Bill Gates is an incredibly unique individual."
Last year Bannister invited Gates to speak at the institute's annual economic-development conference. Gates also will attend this year's event, as a representative of the type of formerly big-city business guy who small-town boosters hope will move in and transform their burgs into beehives of economic activity.
But Rocky Mountain Printing Company and Midnight Engineering are more than successful start-up businesses, although they certainly are that. The magazine began as an obscure project written by people who understand sentences consisting mostly of numbers for people accustomed to reading sentences consisting mostly of numbers.