A Dozen Things I’ve Learned From Mike Maples Sr. About Business and Investing


It would be difficult to overemphasize how important Mike Maples was to the success of Microsoft. Even more difficult would be trying to explain his personality which someone who knew him very well said to me “is several standard deviations away from what you would expect from a tech executive who started his career at IBM.” His personal impact on the lives, beliefs and skills of many people I know is nothing short of massive. He graduated from Oklahoma University with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and earned his master of business administration at Oklahoma City University. Maples joined Microsoft on May 1, 1988. Maples was responsible for all product development and product marketing activities. By the time Maples eventually retired from Microsoft he was the executive vice president of the Worldwide Products Group and member of the Office of the President, reporting directly to Bill Gates. Maples is now an investor and rancher.

Bill Bliss: “Mike arrived from IBM and really shook things up.  He created the first Apps Division Business Units (BU’s) — if memory serves: Analysis Business Unit (Excel, Pete Higgins), Word Business Unit (led by Jeff Raikes), Graphics Business Unit (PowerPoint, led by Bob Gaskins, the founder of the company that created PowerPoint), Entry Business Unit (Microsoft Works, led by Susan Boeschen), and the Data Access Business Unit (Access, codenamed Omega at the time, led for a short time by the late and great Jeff Harbers).  Under each of these was Development, Product Management, Test, Program Management, and User Education. There was also a small shared Tools team reporting to Mike; at the time all the Microsoft applications used a proprietary compiler and other tools.” “This organization allowed each of the products to exist as little startups within the larger organization and it was the BU organizational framework and the strong empowered leaders Mike put in charge that enabled Excel to beat Lotus, Word to beat WordPerfect, and (later) Access to beat Ashton-Tate.  Strategy and execution were pushed all the way down into the organization; without that, the products never could have scaled the way they did.”

Bill Gates: “Mike Maples has been a key architect in [Microsoft’s] growth and success– few business leaders could claim a better record during a similar time.” Seattle Times, May 15, 1995.

The quotes from Mike Maples are in bold text as is usual:

  1. “You try not to have top down decisions. The team who is building Word knows more about that trade-off than I will ever know.” A number of people have told me that this was the most important idea that Maples brought to Microsoft. This principle arrived at just the right time and allowed the company to grow and scale. Decentralization can work extremely well if you have the right people and culture. I have written a post on how this principle is followed at Berkshire Hathaway. The fundamental idea is relatively simple: work really hard to get the right people with the right skills in position to do the work and let them do their job. As with most simple things, it is easy to say, but hard to do in practice.
  1. “I don’t care what process you use as long as you: A) know what it is and write it down; B) establish that you’re following it.  Anything that you can plan is fine with me.” All processes must include a post audit of what worked and did not work.  This would include all functions, be written down and published for all to read.  At the end and beginning of every project, the last post audit would be studied to insure constant improvement.Maples is again stressing the importance of delegation and pushing down responsibility to the people closest to the work. Even though the nature of the process that is used to build a business or create a product like software can vary with the team and the objectives, that does not mean that something like a written schedule can be omitted from that process or that the process can deviate from a zero defects standard of quality. The “writing it down part” is non-trivially important. As Warren Buffet says, if you can’t write it down, you have not thought it through.
  1. “What we tried to do was say that development has three trade-offs. You had quality, function and schedule, and that quality wasn’t an arguable- it was a must. So now you had to choose what function you were going to include on what schedule, but management could only choose one of them. So management would say- this product needs to be shipped in August, and the team would say how much function can I put in before August.” Development is a three-legged stool said Maples recently at a lecture at Stanford. All three legs are critical but managers should only be allowed to create a mandate related to either function or schedule. The team makes the other decision and quality is not negotiable since it must be as good as you can make it without constraints.   
  1. “A group of people that was so bright, and so hard-working, and so focused as Microsoft, you couldn’t tell them how IBM did it, or you couldn’t tell them how to change; but that they were always on a quest for discovery. So if you could frame a problem, they would work through trying to come to an answer, and they’d often come to you for advice as they were trying to craft their answer. And so I think that a lot of times the way things changed was not by autocratically saying, ‘We’re going to do this, or we’re going to have this.’ It was more of getting the people together and say, ‘OK. I’ve observed that we failed here. How do you think we should correct it?’ And then let them discover, and maybe throw in a few ideas, or a few suggestions along the way you know, kind of the ‘I’m a poor boy from the South, don’t know much, but let’s see if we can work this out.’ And it seemed to work pretty well. And the folks were so receptive.” One great way to get things done is to let other people think it was their idea. Another helpful other idea is to remember that people will often take advice better if they seek that advice out rather than a having it pushed on them without asking for help. Maples reminds me in his comments about being a poor boy from the South of another manager who is from Mississippi. I have written about this fellow named Jim Barksdale who is famous for his Barksdaleisms, like: “The infantry is always ahead of headquarters.” Another legendary manager Tom Murphy once described the best approach to decentralization of operating decisions this way: “Don’t hire a dog and try to do the barking.”
  1. “The management system I described is on the edge of control. By design, we didn’t centrally control many things. We let each product team pretty much run alone. And the way that worked was that they would have phases and would report where they stood against that, but we didn’t have management sign off or fixed reviews. The deal was that Bill or I could review any product at any time. We could change it or do whatever we wanted with it, but if we didn’t chose to review it, they didn’t stop and wait.  So there would be products for whatever reason we didn’t have time to deal with, that would go from conception to shipping without ever having a management review.” As a manager you can’t review everything. In my experience the best managers know when they smell something rotten and drill down when they sense it.  And when they sense something great they drill down so they can optimally fertilize it. Trusting the teams you build is an attribute of a great leader. So is the process of holding great review when you do so.
  1. “Good ideas without passion and execution never work. A lot of companies that fail didn’t believe with all their hearts that this was the most important thing to be doing and they didn’t focus. Any time you have pivots 4-or-5 times a year you haven’t got enough focus. If you don’t give ever give x a chance to work out, it never will.” People [at Microsoft] worked incredibly long hours. And I can remember who was it? Was it, maybe, Jabe Blumenthal. Somebody was working on a projection a database project, and they didn’t leave their office for six weeks. You know, they slept, and ate, and lived in their office. I remember going by and finding people with their hands just on the keyboard just asleep. You know, they’re just they’d been there until they’d just stopped thinking.” “These individuals were working to complete the commitment they made to their team, not what the company or manager expected of them.” A lack of focus can be a killer problem for a business. It is vital that a business to pick its objectives well and not get too distracted by chasing every new thing that may appear. Staying focused on the needs of the customers and basics like planning for growth and cash management can help reduce distractions. When you see a great business it is surprising how much success is attributable to doing a small number of things extremely well. Former Microsoft executive and venture capitalist Mike Slade told me: “Jeff Harbers also lived in his office while laboring to ship Microsoft File 1.0 for Mac, which shipped around Christmas 1984. Harbers bunked down in his office at 10700 Northup Way.” In my post last weekend on Elon Musk he talks about how a business can win by simply working harder than competitors. Maples set an example for others. I recall walking by his office at Microsoft late one evening and there he was, the only person in the office wearing a white long sleeve short.
  1. “Keep commitments and schedules.”  “Do what you say you will do.” “Believe in yourself.” “It’s only over when you decide to quit.” “Work with kick-ass people who are committed to doing GREAT work.” “There’s something about the struggle, adversity, the trial and error and worrying at night about things that makes the entrepreneur better and stronger.” “I’m kinda driven by the concept that life dealt me an overly lucky hand. It had little to do with how smart I was. I was at the right place at the right time. Maybe you owe part of that back.” “If you look at the major tech companies, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, they didn’t waste time going to college getting advanced degrees. They went out and built a company. The fact that you went to college means you may be a little conservative on the risk side…that’s not to say a PhD isn’t useful to running a company.”  The importance of values and culture to success in business is often underestimated since people do not tie it to the ability of a business to adapt to change and efficiently make decisions.
  1. “Have system that values the people and the product of their work, one that’s pretty non-political.” “Do what’s right. Sometimes you will be confronted with a situation where it’s harder to explain the right course politically but you will know it’s right brake the risk to stand for what’s right. Don’t hide facts to look good.” The venture Capitalist Mike Maples Jr. says about his father: “He used to hate it when someone would spring a ‘new’ fact on someone in a meeting for the purpose of having the upper hand. All discussions and meetings should start with all cards on the table and no hidden cards for political benefit.”
  1. “If you have 100 people and you want to add 80 more, you better have all 100 of them recruiting.” “Recruiting is best not done by HR but by people with skill like what you are trying to recruit ( developers hiring developers).  “I’d say the number one thing is we’ve managed to hire the best and the brightest. We hire people who are serious minded, and care, willing to work very hard, and are very smart. And I would put that very high on the list. The second thing is I think we have a really good value system, a value system that includes being financially conservative. You know, we don’t waste a lot of money.”“When you hire people, you will make mistakes about 10% of the time.  Not everyone will be a great fit.  Managers must correct mistakes as early as possible.  6 month is easier than a year or two later.  It is only fair to the individual to get them on a path to some other company where they can be maximize their success.” People underestimate how much time the senior management team of a growing business spends recruiting. And no one spends more time recruiting than the CEO at a well-functioning startup especially.
  1. “Acquisitions are hard to make work. We never thought about buying customers or revenue streams. We always thought about people and skill.”  People disagree about what percentage of acquisition fail. The number is big. Of course the Babe Ruth principle applies to acquisitions. It is magnitude of success and not frequency of success that matters most. The goal in investing as Warren Buffett has said is simple:“Take the probability of loss times the amount of possible loss from the probability of gain times the amount of possible gain. That is what we’re trying to do. It’s imperfect but that’s what it’s all about.” Diversification can help says Buffett: “If significant risk exists in a single transaction, overall risk should be reduced by making that purchase one of many mutually- independent commitments.  Thus, you may consciously purchase a risky investment – one that indeed has a significant possibility of causing loss or injury – if you believe that your gain, weighted  for probabilities, considerably exceeds your loss, comparably weighted, and if you can commit to a number of similar, but  unrelated opportunities.  Most venture capitalists employ this strategy.” In the end the goal is to make decisions based on expected value which is the weighted-average value for a distribution of those possible outcomes (multiply the probability of each possible outcome by its respective present value and sum those numbers).
  1. “You’re trying to build barriers to entry that keep your products installed and others out.” “You make sure that people understand the economic theories.” If there are no barriers to new supply of what you sell competitors will cause price to drop to a point where there is no long term industry profit greater than the cost of capital.  Michael Porter use the term “sustainable competitive advantage” to describe the objective of creating these barriers. Warren Buffett calls it a “moat.”  The two terms are essentially identical.  The principle is so simple and yet so many people think only about customers and not competitors as well.  Yes, innovate and deliver exceptional value for customers.  No, that is not enough for sustainable profitability. Revenue is not profit.
  1. “First place is the only place. Any strategy should be a strategy to lead.” “Some of the real rewarding times you know, when I came, I think we had 8% market share in spreadsheets, and it just seemed like forever that it just never changed very much. And then all of a sudden one day, you know, it seemed like in two months it went from 12 to 40, or something. It happened. And I was sitting with Pete [Higgins], and I said, ‘You know, some day we’re going to be in the lead, and we’re going to have the highest market share. We’re going to be the leaders, and what are we going to do then?’ And so it was kind of ah you know, that time that all of a sudden you had arrived.” “Stick-to-it-tiveness” is a success factor. But, by and large, working hard, working smart, smart people; and then really capitalizing on the mistakes of your competitors. You know, the reason Lotus lost out was not only the fact that we were there and pushed them hard, but the fact they just screwed up. The reason Word Perfect, the reason Novell you know, you can trace every one of them to senior management screw-ups. And we wouldn’t be where we are today if they hadn’t of no matter how hard we did. There’s so much momentum against change that unless the users really get frustrated with their installed vendors, they won’t change.” Maples is a strong believer in adopting a long term approach in any business. In a recent joint presentation with Steven Sinofsky at Stanford these attributes were called out by Maples: passion for products and technology, customer feedback, team work, individual excellence. In terms of culture:  strong work ethic, self-motivation,  driven / empowered, technical/business vision, a will to succeed, pride, individual identification with whole company, belief we can change the world, and high standards.



Gaskins Interview: http://www.robertgaskins.com/powerpoint-history/documents/ensmenger-cbi-interview-mike-maples-oh387mm-2004-may-07.pdf

Interview: http://www.siliconhillsnews.com/2013/07/30/mike-maples-talks-investments-startup-smarts-and-bill-gates/   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuKWMq0xq9Y

Quora: https://www.quora.com/What-was-Mike-Maples-Sr-s-role-at-Microsoft/answer/Mike-Maple s

Article: https://books.google.com/books?id=RC_5OCQQJ7YC&pg=PA287&dq=%22mike+maples%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjT7YvUw9rMAhUH1GMKHVIXAQMQ6AEIIDAB#v=onepage&q=%22mike%20maples%22&f=false

Article: https://books.google.com/books?id=bZrPRKsUd2QC&pg=PA180&dq=%22mike+maples%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjviJCbxNrMAhUQ0GMKHTZVB5Q4ChDoAQhDMAg#v=onepage&q=%22mike%20maples%22&f=false

Bill Bliss: https://www.quora.com/What-was-Mike-Maples-Sr-s-role-at-Microsoft


2 thoughts on “A Dozen Things I’ve Learned From Mike Maples Sr. About Business and Investing

  1. Thanks Tren. Wonderful to see the how important are operational managers in contributing to success – they are the other side of the coin wrt a visionary, driven founder in bringing the vision to life

  2. Pingback: 1 – A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Mike Maples Sr. About Business and Investing

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