Four things you learn when Bill Gates bumps your work off an international stage

Two market crashes ago, I was a Senior Product Manager at a really cool startup founded by some genius MIT folks. An innocuous phone call came in to our marketing manager, a non-specific request from a mid-level person. Someone wanting to speak with our Product Manager. Our marketing manager gave me the number and the message.

PC Expo, Blake Patterson, Flickr CC BY 2.0

1. Always take the call! You never know if the next big deal is on the line. (See the apocryphal story about the poorly dressed man on a bicycle at the Cadillac dealer who was laughed off by the senior sales reps, handed off to the junior rep, only to buy two Cadillacs from the junior rep. Or the real story, mine, of a person calling into an early business for five freebies — and those freebies, almost ignored, that turned into a 12,000-unit sale.) Always take the call!

Back to Bill: The person from Microsoft was looking for some newfangled USB auto-detect hardware to demo on the stage with Bill Gates at a PC Expo event in NY at the Javits center. Would we be open to supporting this? After I stopped myself from screaming “HELL YA!” (I think this was before “Woot!”) I took a deep breath and collected the details from her. Basically, they wanted our team to work with the Microsoft launch and PR team to show our portable interactive whiteboard (the first mimio) in a skit with Bill Gates and an NBA player.

2. Marketing skits, even for tech products, aren’t stupid! To the best of my recollection, Bill was going show hardware being plugged in and out of a Windows 2000 laptop in a skit taking place in a cutaway airplane and demo it working seamlessly. Demo it to an NBA player who happened to be sitting next to him on the plane. So, if Bill Gates can do this silliness (and over the years, many other silly skits and good-humored presentations and videos), why can’t others? There is a lot of positioning and work that goes into a great skit, and humans are humans. We learn and remember with stories! Marketing skits aren’t stupid.

3. Don’t be afraid to brainstorm with people much smarter than you. In a different world, at a different time, I would have been too scared on my multiple trips to Washington to work on our portion of this demo script to provide detailed input, much less constructive criticism, to the senior people feeding up to the people who fed up to Bill Gates. But youth and stupidity led to some great ideas. Maybe the lesson is to listen to youth and stupidity sometimes. But for now, I’ll go with “don’t be afraid to brainstorm with people much smarter than you.”

4. Build relationships where you team has your back. Because sometimes you’ll need their back!

Fast forward past the multiple trips to Washington, the multiple script drafts about using mimio on a fake airplane, and to the lobby of the Javits Center in New York City. This was the Windows 2000 launch, a pretty big deal back then at a huge venue. I didn’t even have tickets to get into Bill Gates’ keynote, though I was well aware of what was supposed to happen during the USB portion of the demo. And my team’s work would be on the world’s stage! Not only that, but our team back in Cambridge, Massachusetts had a video feed set up and they knew the time the keynote was set to happen. And, as I found out later, most of my entire team was waiting and watching at that exact moment!

Meanwhile, back at the Javits Center…

I was standing in one of the front lobbies of the Javits, when my circa 1999 Nokia mobile rang. The PR person told me “I’m sorry to tell you this, but Bill and the team pulled an all-nighter with the demo and presentation. It ran too long, so they cut most of the USB demos out of the presentation.”

I think she hung up or the call dropped. It turns out the call dropped. But it didn’t drop as far as my heart and ego and shoulders dropped. “Drooped” is a better word. I was beside myself.

I had to call back to HQ in Cambridge and tell the team the bad news. I mean this was a lot of work for all of us to pull this off and our little startup was on a national stage. With Bill Gates demoing! The highlight of my career to that date was supposed to have been only minutes away. Now? Crash.

I dialed my boss on the 1999 Nokia. No connection. I dialed again. Nothing. I asked others near me. Could they get a signal? Nope. Bill Gates was starting in a few minutes and everyone was on the phone. I ran outside. Nothing! No signal. I fact I didn’t get a call through for at least another 30 minutes. Cellular congestion a la 1999 in New York’s Javits Center.

When I did, and told the story, laughter! Apparently, everyone was teasing me. Did I just want to take free trips to Redmond and New York? Was this ever for real? Did I have the right date? And on from there. Of course, they all knew I was truthful. But what could I do? The world happens.

Despite the teasing, my team had my back. We had an amazing product. Something good enough that Bill Gates himself was going to show it on a national stage. The product was ready. The skit was ready. But the timing was not to be — not for me, for the team, or for the nascent cellular network. I learned then (and have failed since then when I forgot that lesson) that we all need to build relationships where you team has your back. Without that, you can never have excellence.

-Gary Dietz