NOW I KNOW HOW A REAL VISIONARY SOUNDS
(FORTUNE Magazine) – I think I've met a real, honest-to-goodness visionary. This is kind of a sticky thing to talk about. Imagine that I cruised into your office, asking you all kinds of personal questions and sticking my nose into your business. And then I turn around and call you a visionary in front of the whole business world. How would you feel? Probably a lot like Michael Saylor is feeling right now. But I've got a feeling Saylor really is a visionary. So I thought I'd explore the definition of "visionary" and see if he fits.
Saylor started a company called Microstrategy back in 1989. You wouldn't have thought it would amount to much. Saylor was 24 years old and two years out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He started by working with a spreadsheet program called Wingz, which was developed by a software company in Kansas and which ran on the Macintosh. Never heard of Wingz? Didn't realize software was actually developed in Kansas? Never thought of the Macintosh as a good place to develop applications for large companies? Join the crowd.
Now, eight years later, Microstrategy employs more than 400 people and this year should bring in more than $50 million in revenues. Microstrategy's specialty sounds arcane--ROLAP, which stands for relational online analytical processing. But its general purpose isn't hard to understand: answering questions by analyzing very large sets of data. ROLAP is a key activity in data warehousing, which is all about collecting, storing, and manipulating huge amounts of raw information in computer systems. And Saylor, now a mature 32, sounds just about credible when he talks about building the next billion-dollar software company.
The first thing that anyone needs to qualify as a visionary is a vision, of course. Bill Gates, for instance, has been harping pretty constantly about putting a computer on every desk and in every home since he started Microsoft more than 20 years ago. That's a vision.
Saylor has one too. He talks about "database resonance" and "query tone." I'll explain. Thanks largely to the Internet, companies have finally begun to tie their different, disconnected computer systems into big networks. At the same time, they're beginning to integrate their databases: customer records, transactions, sales calls, sales receipts, employees, and so on. Lots of companies, particularly those that deal directly with millions of customers--retailers, banks, airlines, to name a few--now have some really big databases. In computer terms, we're talking about single files larger than 100 gigabytes of data, potentially up to several terabytes--that's roughly 3,000 times bigger than the hard disk on the next computer you'll probably buy.
So the question arises: Can you use these data differently when they're all collected in one place?
That's where Saylor's idea of database resonance comes in. A large pool of information is valuable to the degree that it can be accessed by all the people who have a stake in it: those who work for the company that owns the database, those who do business with the company, and those whose personal details are captured in the data. These groups include people who traditionally are the have-nots of the database world--small suppliers and small merchants, for example, and ordinary consumers. Until recently, only a small percentage of the people who might use a particular database could actually root around in it for answers.
Microstrategy's software already is helping more users get in. Big companies use its products to make their data accessible to more employees--not just the database managers and geeks in information systems but also marketing dweebs and regular managers--and to more suppliers and customers.
Saylor believes that the World Wide Web will eventually give us query tone, the database equivalent of dial tone. When you pick up a telephone you hear a dial tone, which signifies that you can call anyone in the world with another telephone. Saylor believes we will all eventually be able to sit in front of our computers and ask complex questions of any database we are participants in. If we're about to visit Atlanta, we should be able to ask, "What mid-priced downtown hotel catering to business travelers has the highest percentage of repeat customers?" If we live in New York City, we should be able to ask: "Which are the five best physical therapists for knee injuries in Manhattan, listed by closeness to where I live?"
What's radical, and largely unresolved, about Saylor's vision is that to answer some questions, a computer program would have to use data traditionally considered proprietary or otherwise off-limits. To find the best hotel, for instance, the software in Saylor's vision might have to examine transactions on corporate credit cards. To find the best doctors, the software would need to access and analyze patient records. Such a prospect raises tricky questions about privacy and rights in the digital age. But on the whole, Saylor argues, there are big economic and social benefits to be gained by open access to big databases.
For the clueless among you, please believe me when I say accessing big databases is not something you can do today. Even in the bowels of large marketing companies, it is still difficult to get answers to questions like: "How are sales of widgets doing against the budget in each region?" So this really is vision.
The second thing any good visionary needs is a strategy. I'll come clean here and say that I was visiting Saylor with one of my associates to try to persuade him to let us invest in his firm. That people are begging to invest in Saylor's enterprise shows what strategy can do.
Strategy is life chess, being able to see more than two or three moves ahead and then design the moves in between to make sure you end up where you want to be. Strategy is the mechanism for converting a vision into reality. Intel's Andy Grove adopted the strategy long ago of investing much of his company's capital in building the capacity to make huge volumes of state-of-the-art microprocessors. That overwhelming capacity is now a lethal competitive weapon. At the time Grove adopted the strategy, some people thought he was nuts.
What I didn't expect when I wandered into Saylor's office near a shopping mall in Vienna, Va., was that his company has mapped out every piece of its long-term strategy. Indeed, it turned out Saylor had already been pitched by more than 40 other venture firms--we were just the most recent to get turned down. This is when I started to think that perhaps I had met a real visionary.
The third thing any good visionary needs is a legend. Michael Dell started Dell Computer by selling computers out of his dormitory room at the University of Texas. The founders of Compaq sketched the initial design of their first product on the back of a place mat in a coffee shop. Saylor's legend ranks pretty high. I mentioned Wingz; Saylor's first job after graduating from MIT was at Du Pont, where he worked on applying Wingz software to the company's problems. When Du Pont asked him to write marketing software, he balked and said he preferred to go to graduate school. So Du Pont offered him $100,000 to do the project on his own. As Saylor puts it, college kids can make $100,000 go a long way. He made the payment from Du Pont stretch far enough to start a company.
The fourth thing any good visionary needs is an edge. You get an edge by being smart. Saylor is smart; he has delved deeply into what must be one of the most obscure branches of computer science. In an interview in a relatively nerdy magazine, he is actually quoted saying: "We developed the concept of a 'snowflake' schema because a straight star schema design would never have been able to return aggregate-level queries without Cartesian products." Even Bill Gates would have a hard time with that one. (Sorry if I offended you, Bill, but databases have never been your strong suit.)
Of course, you don't get the kind of edge you need to be a visionary without having what, ahem, might be called the ability to believe in yourself. Saylor has it in spades: He really believes it is his mission to bring data to the people, to give Joe Blow the ability to wander through the databases of life.
I don't know if I've convinced you that Saylor is a real visionary. But I'm convinced enough to take a chance by calling him one in a major business magazine. So, Mike, the pressure's on. Please don't make me wrong!
STEWART ALSOP is a partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm. Neither he nor his partnership has financial interests in the companies mentioned. Alsop may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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