Friday, March 21, 2008

The Power of Pairs

Hewlett and Packard. Gates and Allen. Buffett and Munger. Filo and Yang. Brin and Page. Wozniak and Jobs.

What do these people all have in common?

Locations? Alma maters? Almost maters?

No. The big idea is that many of America's most successful entrepreneurs and innovators work in pairs. Clearly, there are some great counterexamples (Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison all quickly spring to mind) but it's somewhat striking that several of those at the pinnacle of the American high-tech or investment sectors got there with a partner.

Here's why these particular pairings are important -- it's not just that they're smart, or driven, or talented (of course, they're all of the above), but that each member of these pairs knew the other before they had 'made it.'

Why is that so important? Because frank exchanges of ideas matter. And because no one wants to tell the emperor that he's in his birthday suit. But if you knew the emperor before he was the emperor, you'd have no problem saying it. Hewlett and Packard really were 'two guys in a garage' just as Filo and Yang really were 'two guys in a dorm room.' They'd never appear that way to us, but on some level, they'll always appear that way to each other.

Most Americans immediately associate Bill Gates with Microsoft, with Seattle, or better yet, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We treat him with the same awe that we treat rock stars or other celebrities. But for the small percentage who knew him as the dorky, awkward kid from the Lakeside School (and Paul Allen happens to be a member of this group) it's a wholly altogether different image.

So when the two of them get in a room and collaborate, it's just two guys talking. If one has a bad idea, the other can call "BS!" without batting an eyelid.

But tell me who, other than Charlie Munger, is ever going to call "BS!" on an idea that comes from the revered Oracle of Omaha? No one, that's who. Not academia, not journalists, not the chattering classes, and not even the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.

Everyone -- no matter how powerful or successful -- stands to benefit from something or someone who grounds them. When that's lost, the emperor is set up for a fall.

Sometimes I wonder whether the Lewinsky Affair could have been avoided if Mack McLarty or Webster Hubbell had still been in the Administration at the time. We'll never know.

We'll also never know if someone who might have had the power to prevent the self-destruction of a New York governor who had just won a true landslide victory had been pushed away before he could have had the chance to say, "Don't do this."

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