Paul Allen has scored another sentimental victory. After parting ways with childhood friend Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder vaporized billions on bad bets in the cable and tech industries. Mr. Allen later bought the now Super Bowl champion Seahawks to keep them from leaving Seattle. On occasion, the best investments can come from the heart.
For years, Mr. Allen’s reputation has been that of something of an accidental billionaire who owed his billions to a prep school friendship with Mr. Gates. That’s far too harsh, considering he named the company, convinced his friend to quit Harvard University, and negotiated a deal to buy the operating system Microsoft licensed to IBM, and which became the PC standard. It’s hard to imagine Microsoft succeeding without him.
Yet Mr. Allen’s success at Microsoft stemmed more from his passion for ideas than savvy investment expertise. He acknowledged that Mr. Gates was the commercial brains behind the company – and characterized his involvement with Microsoft and Mr. Gates as similar to a “failed romance.”
The poor performance of Mr. Allen’s wagers after leaving Microsoft reinforced the notion that he lacked a Midas touch. During the tech boom he sank huge sums into tech and telecommunications firms, and lost much of it. Most of the $7-billion-plus (U.S.) that he plowed into Charter Communications turned to dust.
Mr. Allen has had more success recently, including some well-timed energy wagers. But his biggest successes appear to have come from personal passions. For instance, his involvement with a non-profit trying to create a park in a rundown part of Seattle led to a gentrification of the area that now looks prescient and profitable.
Purchasing the Seahawks for $194-million in 1997 had a similar genesis. The previous owner wanted to move the franchise to California. Mr. Allen stepped up, bought the Seahawks and helped build a new stadium – characterizing the act as a “civic obligation.” The team was valued at about $1.1-billion earlier this year, according to Forbes. With the win, it’s surely worth more, perhaps eightfold the initial investment. Perhaps Mr. Allen should scour Seattle for more things he loves the next time he’s deploying capital.