NM: Initially I wanted to go on in math. I talked to a professor at UCLA and they said the two best schools for mathematics were Princeton and Berkeley. I have been bad about procrastinating. So I put off applying, and I applied only to those two schools, which, if my kids do that, I’ll kill them. Of course they should apply to many, many schools, and they should keep their options open. I only applied to those two, and I got into both of them. I decided to go Princeton and I decided applied math was more interesting than pure math. So I went into this applied math program that could let you do whole variety of different things.
So the next degree I got was a master’s degree in mathematical economics. Then I finally got a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. A friend of mine said that I was trying to have more degrees than a thermometer. And they’re all on different topics, which in a way was a mistake because I could have been out much sooner if I had concentrated and focused on just one area.
DA: You were still in your young, early twenties.
NM: I was 23 so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time. And I’m glad I did because it was great to see all of these other fields and learn something about them.
DA: Were you considering spending your career as an academic?
NM: Oh absolutely, that was the only thing. I’m sure if you had interviewed me when I was in graduate school at Princeton, I would have been very full of myself about that. And I would explain in an enormous, articulate way about what else would one do? You know, what greater thing could one aspire to? But of course I’m not there.
NM: ... People have a lot of metaphors for entrepreneurship. I like two of those metaphors. One is white water rafting, and I say white water rafting because you have a skill in rafting that counts for something. I know a number of people that are great rafters. But you’re also going on this wild river, and the current is going, and you’re going to get splashed, and wet and thrown, and even the best rafters have been thrown out of the raft and capsized and everything else. It’s partially under your control, and it’s partially not under your control. And a lot of people don’t realize that.
I talked to a lot of people when I first started this company. There was a venture capitalist who had been an entrepreneur, and he was full of sage advice. I remember I was in his office, which was in the Bank America Tower in San Francisco. It was on the 50th floor with this stunning view. And he says, “You know, having a company is like having a baby.”
I said, “Okay.” He says, “No, no, no, it’s not like what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s like the man’s role in having a baby, a half hour of fun, and nine months later you pass out cigars and you’re a proud father.” He said, “No, it’s like the woman’s role in having a baby. It’s nine months of incredible discomfort and pain and all this; and then the hard work starts.” And I have to say he was right. You know at the time I listened to him. I heard him out. I didn’t realize how true that was.
DA: Did the whole company go to Microsoft?
NM: Yes, well most of the company came. There were about 15 people who were employees, and a whole bunch of them were part time. The eight full time people all came, and we weren’t sure how long it was going to last. We weren’t sure whether we would like Seattle. We weren’t sure whether Microsoft really would like us once they saw us up close. It turns out this group had an illustrious career at Microsoft. I’m still here. My brother Cameron is a Vice President here at Microsoft. He actually didn’t join when we first came up. He was the only full time guy not to join. He went back to Berkeley and finished up that last quarter, and joined the following year. The guy who’s the technical lead on Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and is now technical lead for natural language in the company, came from my company. The guy who is the technical lead for graphics and Windows NT came from my company. The guy who’s the technical lead for multi-media for a long time at Microsoft, came from my company. These eight guys that came up, all had stellar careers. We sort of spread out throughout Microsoft and wound up in very senior
See here for a NYTimes update on his company Intellectual Ventures, also discussed in this earlier blog post: Gladwell amongst the patent trolls.