Articles > People & Politics
The Seven Billion Dollar Man
Michael Saylor Isn’t Just the Richest Person in Washington—He Wants to Change the World. To Do So, He Only Needs to Know Everything About You.
There is no great genius without a tincture of madness. —SENECA
One afternoon last summer, Michael Saylor's assistant buzzed him in his office at MicroStrategy on the 14th floor of Tycon Tower, facing east to where the Washington Monument sticks up like a toothpick on the horizon. She said a neighbor was on the phone and he should take the call.
"Your neighbor across the street has parked his car in your backyard," his next-door neighbor said.
"How?" Saylor asked. His backyard is a small patch of ground behind his town house. There is no alley, no access.
"He backed through your garage, through your house, to your backyard," the neighbor said. "Now he's trying to drive out. He's stuck in your basement."
Saylor drove to the townhouse complex off Route 123 a mile west of Tysons Corner. There were police cars and fire engines in the street and a Mercedes-Benz in his basement. A police officer was laughing at the scene. An hour later a building inspector arrived. The Benz had cut the gas lines. "Sorry," he said, "we're going to have to condemn your house."
Michael Saylor found it all "amusing." He looked at the roof beam through the car's sunroof and his furniture pushed into the yard. He called his butler, Brian, and said, "Fix it all." He took a hotel room until he could move back in. While refurnishing the place, he bought a TV with a 61-inch screen.
The incident, he recalls, "was interesting for about five minutes, but it wasn't the most interesting thing… . Like there is just nothing that goes on in this office that isn't 10,000 times more important than a guy driving through my house. You could call me on the phone and say, 'Someone blew up your entire house, Mike.' If it's not a person involved, I would sort of blink, whatever. That's all replaceable, right?"
Saylor punctuates many of his sentences with "right," but it's not a question. It's an affirmation of what he just said and a springboard to his next monologue.
When the neighbor crashed through his basement, Saylor was worth a few billion dollars. One day last summer MicroStrategy stock rose 47 points, and Saylor's worth on paper went up $1 billion. In one day. The stock keeps rising. Now the 35-year-old businessman/philosopher is worth $7 billion, which makes him the richest man in the Washington region. AOL's Steve Case is worth only a billion or so.
Money is nice, but amassing personal wealth is not Saylor's goal. He still lives in a cookie-cutter townhouse and drives a five-year-old Lexus as if he were CEO of a small, shaky high-tech outfit making $150,000 a year, which not long ago is what he was. Money is a means to an end.
"It's not about wealth creation for Mike," says Mark Ein, founder of Venturehouse Group, a venture-capital firm in the District and Virginia. "He really wants to build something. I don't think he's driven by anything else."
The end, for Michael Saylor, is power, but not power in the conventional political sense. Saylor is a visionary. Think Bill Gates on acid. A conversation with Saylor quickly turns into a withering discourse in which his thoughts skip like a rock on a pond from Julius Caesar to Trajan to Josephus to Mark Antony to Christopher Columbus to Shakespeare to Thomas Edison, all in a minute or two.
Michael Saylor is not your typical boyish billionaire. He's neither brash, as he is often called, nor flamboyant. In fact, his friends say he is "awkward" in social situations; his monologues might be a defense against basic shyness and a world in which everyone seems to want something from him or his billions. But he is obsessed by his mission: to spread information and intelligence throughout the world.
Saylor wants to beam information directly into your mind, maybe through transmitters sunk into your skull or an implant behind your eye or a tiny speaker in your ear so he can reach you sleeping or eating or drinking or playing or flying or making love. The network he envisions would tell you about traffic jams or medicine you need to take or a stock you should sell or a book you'd like to read or whether your daughter broke her arm or a neighbor just drove through your basement.
"Our mantra is intelligent e-business, which means personalized, proactive Web, wireless, and voice intelligence, and so this idea that you shouldn't just use the Web site but rather the Web site should bark out to you," he says. "That was a totally new idea."
Translation: Your cell phone or transmitter would alert you with information it thinks you might need, sort of like an omniscient butler in your brain.
MicroStrategy would run this network and make billions in the process, which is Mike Saylor's job but not his goal. It's not why he was put on Earth. Saylor believes he was put here to change the world, to obliterate ignorance, to spread "intelligence everywhere."
"We're talking about software that's coming that if it stops working, it's going to kill people," he says. "And if it does work, it will save people."
"You give me your medical history," he tells a batch of new MicroStrategy recruits, "I give you more life."
Life and death. Michael Saylor and MicroStrategy.
No, getting rich isn't the goal. Saylor wants to play God. But some of his visions make him look more like Big Brother.
Driving around the beltway to Michael Saylor's townhouse a few days before Christmas, I'm reviewing my financial status and feeling swell: I can make a thousand-dollar payment on one of my credit cards. I'm also wondering what it's like to be 35 and fabulously wealthy.
This evening it's painful. Saylor has wrenched his back, making him feel 85.
The first person down the stairs to the living room of his two-story townhouse is a masseuse. A few minutes later Saylor descends, bent over like a question mark. He's wearing a blue-gray suit that could have come off a sale rack, black shoes, white shirt, yellow tie. He normally walks with short, quick steps, but with the kink in his back his movements are a bit more tentative. His rounded shoulders give him a diminutive look rather than that of a captain of industry. His shaggy hair is combed, but a few shocks are out of place as usual. He doesn't sweat the details of fashion.
Before he appeared on 60 Minutes last fall, he reviewed videotapes of himself and got a bit of guidance. "I don't need a coach to tell me what to say," he says. "I need a coach to figure out what kind of shirt to wear and how to look at the camera and how to avoid, you know, picking your nose on camera."
Saylor and MicroStrategy seem ubiquitous, thanks in part to Mark Bisnow, Saylor's chief of staff and personal publicist. There were the 60 Minutes appearance, interviews on CNN, invitations to the White House, mentions in the gossip columns, a tenth-anniversary MicroStrategy bash at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a Super Bowl party for several thousand of his closest friends at FedEx Field.
MicroStrategy's software products turn raw data into useful information. Think of it as spinning straw into gold. MicroStrategy also sells software that helps businesses refine their data so they can pitch their products more efficiently to customers. But what Saylor is selling with evangelical fervor now is Strategy.com, a wireless network that he hopes will "inject itself on the critical path of life for a billion people."
Fortune 500 companies and Wall Street are sold on Saylor and MicroStrategy. Corporations are spending millions of dollars to buy their services. Investors have driven the stock up from $15.50 a share last April to more than $300 a share in February, before it split 2-for-1. The company has grown from 150 employees on one floor to 1,700 in six buildings and ten countries.
Saylor doesn't want to talk about share price. He's pitching the next thing: "Telepathic intelligence."
Dinner is served by Brian at the wooden dining table in the eat-in kitchen. The cuisine is pork loin, cauliflower, potatoes, salad. Saylor is working on two bottles of Snapple. Two cell phones sit in the middle of the table. They blink but never ring.
Saylor visited with Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore and his traffic chiefs this afternoon. They were talking about a Web site to display traffic jams. Saylor told them they had it all wrong.
"I would create a database of 5 million Virginians and every way they drove to work, from work, and then where you go on the weekend and where you go on the beach, and 90 percent of the traffic is predictable," he says in a burst. "I mean, the truth of the matter is, 95 percent of our time in the car is reasonably predictable."
Then you match the database with jammed roads and send alerts to the commuters and tell them how to avoid bottlenecks. No more traffic jams. The Wilson Bridge doesn't need 12 lanes. People just need to change driving patterns.
The numbers and studies fly out of his head like a torrent of data from a talking computer. He's got a way for General Motors to service its fleet of cars more efficiently by sending alerts to drivers. He's figured a way for Blockbuster to sell more videos. Classical merchandising—trying to project what a consumer might want—is a waste of time and money.
"I mean, it occurred to me, this is kind of stupid," he says. He's jabbing at his salad as if trying to kill off old business practices. "Why try to guess what the consumer is going to buy next year? Why not just ask them? Just ask a customer. So you get the system like Blockbuster and you say, "What is your favorite movie star? What is your favorite actor? Who is your favorite director? What is your favorite type of movie? What type of movies would you like to buy when they first come out? Who is your favorite musician?" And so on.
"When you get that in the log, I've got you. I've got all of your preferences, and then I say, would you like to know when Billy Joel releases a new album? Would you like to know when Madonna comes to town? Would you like front-row tickets for any of the following musicians? You end up with a database of 50 million people telling you their entertainment preferences."
Then MicroStrategy pitches them and gets a share of every transaction they make.
The idea is the same with what Saylor calls the "dead-CEO alert." Say you own stock in Amazon.com, and Saylor's company knows this because you've signed up with Strategy.com and divulged your portfolio. If something happens to one of your stocks, you get an alert. "You gave me permission to beep you," Saylor says. Suppose Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos dies.
"Now that I've got your permission," Saylor says, "I'm the first guy in the world to tell you that Jeff Bezos has wrapped his car around a tree. Would you like more information? No. Would you like to sell the stock? Maybe. Yeah… . So you're going to sell the stock on the handset, but who is owning the transaction now? Me. I have the transaction. I've gotten between you and the marketplace—I'm the market maker. I disintermediated the market with intelligence."
Saylor's pork loin is cold. Who has time to eat? The intensity of his brain power makes Saylor vibrate when he talks. You wonder if he has a computer chip already implanted in his brain. His feet tap. His shoulders twitch. His eyebrows jump. He attacks his food and his subjects with a mixture of impatience and anger.
Financial services: Saylor envisions a system that will tell you the lowest credit-card rates and the cheapest mortgages and the best deals on car loans. It will allow you to switch cards or refinance your debt with the press of a button.
"This is war against the financial establishment, right?" he says.
Well, maybe. There are a few potential flaws in Michael Saylor's grand design. I bring up two: People are already being bombarded by information. How much more can they absorb? And who will be willing to trust Michael Saylor or a computer network or anyone with every detail of their lives, from traffic patterns to medical records to investments?
"The whole point of our network is trust," he says. "The number-one asset of the 21st century is trust of the consumer, of the economic actor."
Give Saylor's network "the keys to your travel-agency account" and the other details of your life, and he will do the rest.
"And you trust me to call you and interrupt your day. So I'm getting your permission to interrupt you and contact you. I'm getting your trust to look at your brokerage account, your bank account, and your insurance schedule, maybe your medical record… . Then I'm simply performing the logical analysis necessary to arbitrage out market inefficiencies."
I say this gives me some pause—the information could be used to harm me. Who has access to all my personal information?
"We bank it," he says. "We're just like a bank… . It's encrypted. It's firewalled. And the only person that touches it is you. Nobody else can get at it. We don't sell it. We don't share it. It's just to your benefit."
I'm still not sold.
Saylor, the revolutionary, isn't pleased.
"The perverse observation here is your anti-technology tendencies are exactly what the establishment wants, because every financial provider is taking advantage of you, every medical provider is taking advantage of you, every standard vendor is taking advantage of you in the current status quo," he says.
"What we're talking about here is an intermediary that's a union, right? That's just as powerful as they are, that's just as smart as they are, that fights the information war with them all the time, and if you, if you trust me primarily instead of them, then that's really the war, isn't it? It's either me or them."
A minute later Saylor says, "My principal professional objective is to introduce intelligence as the ubiquitous utility. I'd like to be the Thomas Edison of intelligence."
More like big brother, says Robert Gellman, a privacy and information-policy consultant in Washington. "I don't know who he plans to sell this to," says Gellman. "You're going to have to have surgery to get this stuff? That's insane. All the nuts think the CIA is beaming information at them. Now this guy wants to make it true. This is Big Brother on steroids."
Says Joel Reidenberg, professor at Fordham University Law School and expert in information privacy: "I can't imagine anyone who would want a chip implanted behind their ear that lets an organization track and talk to them that frequently. It's an Orwellian vision come to life. It's astonishing for civilized people."
Saylor breezes past these naysayers, just as he's rolled over all the lawyers and bankers and venture capitalists who told him he couldn't do things his way. But isn't a tiny speaker barking in your ear about traffic and stocks and your daughter's science project too intrusive?
Not to Saylor. "I would call that telepathic intelligence," he says, "every hour of every day, every day of the week, every week of your life, if you would depend on that like electricity—but it's intelligence like electricity, intelligence as a ubiquitous, utilitarian entitlement. That's the vision. That's the future we're headed for."
He wants to take pages from the lives of Julius Caesar and Machiavelli and Augustus. "I'm a politician," he says. "I'm a political leader. I have a nation. I have constituents. I have investors."
Does he aim too high?
"I'm not so naive as to think that everybody always succeeds, right? I mean, half of Shakespeare's stories are tragedies—right?"
Jesus Christ gazes across Saylor's dining table from a print of Salvador Dali's rendition of the Last Supper. Jesus is blond. The disciples are androgynous. They're sitting at a hard-edged, metallic table under golden beams. Dali has superimposed a man's chest over the sky.
"It presses all of Michael Saylor's buttons," he says of the painting. "It's translucent, geometric, futuristic. It's neoreligious—a mixture of religion and technology and new and old in a futuristic setting, with the Sea of Galilee as a backdrop."
Saylor decorated his own home once his mother dragged him to the furniture store. His tastes run to clean lines, black leather couches, silver and black china. And crystal balls. The house was devoid of furniture for his first three years. Then he bought some blinds, which blocked the sun, so he brought in some lamps. They're all the same, based on Frank Lloyd Wright's geometric design from the Dana-Thomas House. Likewise, the tables and display cases are clean-edged, blond, inlaid with geometric designs.
"The furniture is 42 matching pieces," he says. "I bought it all at the same time. I'm not the kind of person to go shopping every other week and buy two pieces at a time. I just don't have the patience."
More than half of a breakfront display case is home to an array of ceramic fantasy figurines: a wizard riding a dragon with a crystal ball on its head; maidens on horses with wings; more wizards and plenty of crystal balls. There's a hockey stick used by the Washington Capitals' goalie, a gift from friend and MicroStrategy board member Jonathan Ledecky. The crystals came from his mother over the past ten years.
"The motto of the company early on was 'crystal balls on every desktop'—you know, the idea of giving people a view into the truth. She liked that motif," he says. "So I played with that for a while. They're all sort of some fantasy world of dragons and wizards where magic works."
Magic. Fantasy. Technology. Saylor likes the triad so well that he put a quote by Arthur C. Clarke on the back of the company's prospectus: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
The landing above the livingroom serves as Saylor's music studio. There are four guitars and a digital piano. He loves to sing. Growing up outside of Dayton, Ohio, he sang in the choir of a Southern Baptist church and in school and in pick-up rock-'n'-roll bands. He learned to play the guitar when he was 17 because he didn't get a role in The Sound of Music at his high school. The orchestra director said he needed someone who could play both trombone and guitar. Saylor already played trombone, and he taught himself guitar in six weeks. Now he invites friends over for karaoke.
Saylor lives alone, but he's close to his family, judging from the array of photos on a bureau in the music studio. There's a photo of a Florida fishing trip with his older sister and younger brother. A black-and-white portrait shows Saylor at 21, fresh-faced and smiling, with his father, both in uniform. Saylor was graduating from MIT, an ROTC lieutenant in the Air Force; his father was an Air Force chief master sergeant.
"My father was the typical, disciplined, military sergeant, you know?" Saylor says. "If you're going to do something, do it right, you know? The kind of guy that was absolutely, 100-percent straight. I can't remember a single time in my life where my father ever said an untruth or tried to slide by with a half effort on anybody or with everything, which is kind of interesting, you know, because you don't realize how unique that is until you grow up, and then you realize that people are always, like, sliding by, a negotiation or something, but my father never cut a corner, ever."
His mother, Phyllis, beams from a color photo, her smile radiant. "My father taught me character," Saylor says. "My mother taught me charisma."
His dad is the one who told him he had to do things; his mother told him he could do anything he wanted because he was brilliant. In seventh grade he was named paperboy of the year; his mother pulled him aside and whispered in his ear: "You're going to grow up and do something great for society because you've got lots of gifts and you're very smart—so make sure you use them all well."
Married for 38 years, his parents now live outside Tampa. "They gave me good values," Saylor says. "Both are committed to family and to one another."
Saylor grew up on Air Force bases around the world from Japan to New Zealand, in the United States from Nebraska to Florida, but he came of age, starting in seventh grade, in Fairborn, Ohio, a working-class town near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton.
Two of his friends from those years are Tom Spahr, who wound up going to MIT with Saylor and has been at MicroStrategy since the early days, and Don Griffith, a lawyer with the SEC here.
"We weren't so much with the party crowd," Spahr says. "We'd go to dinner and the movies then spend countless hours in deep discussions about life—often at Saylor's house, where his mother would keep us fed and occasionally chime in.
"One night we looked out the window and saw a neighbor's yard that hadn't been mowed in ages," he recalls, "which led to a five-hour debate about whether government should have the right to force people to cut their grass."
Music was a big part of their lives. They played in school bands and marching bands and jazz groups. The listened to Van Halen and Rush and Police and Styx and Pink Floyd and Genesis. Saylor was known for imitating John Travolta at dances and asking cute seniors to dance when he was a nerdy freshman. "I'm not sure he ever got a date with one of them," Spahr says.
Saylor was valedictorian at Fairborn High and was voted most likely to succeed. "He always read more than the rest of us," Spahr says. "He was always putting things in the context of the Greeks and Romans."
Saylor's basement is becoming a shrine to himself. Every article written about him is framed and hung on the walls, from the top of the steps down to the bottom, where the Mercedes-Benz came to rest.
"It's my vanity wall," he says.
He wants to show me his favorite film, Clerks, the ultimate slacker movie about life on the streets of a down-and-out Jersey shore town. The 1994 cult movie by director Kevin Smith appeals to teens—and to Michael Saylor. He loads it into the VCR, and black-and-white scenes of white guys spewing raunchy, scatological dialogue flash onto the 61-inch screen.
"This is so funny," Saylor says. "I've never seen anything so funny as this."
For a few minutes you get a glimpse of Saylor during his MIT days, 1983 to 1987. Sid Banerjee, a Theta Delta Chi fraternity brother of Saylor's who came into MicroStrategy early and stayed on, recalls snapping a picture of Saylor on the first day of class: "He was wearing a Def Leppard T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He had a cheesy little mustache. He came across as a crazy heavy-metal head. Actually, he was a quiet Midwestern guy."
In the frat house, the brothers drank. Saylor studied. He was "strait-laced," but he liked to make noise. One night, Banerjee says, Saylor climbed up on the roof of the frat house, cranked his electric guitar up full blast, and woke the neighborhood. "Nuclear" was his nickname.
"I started out with a nuclear-engineering major," Saylor explains, "and I had a volatile personality, kind of incendiary. I'd walk into a group of people, and they'd all split—like nuclear fission."
Banerjee recalls a strong-willed, politically conservative debater who was a devotee of George Will. In his senior year, when classmates were loosening up, Saylor piled on the work with a double major.
What distinguished his frat brother from the other brains at MIT?
"Mike was a voracious reader," Banerjee says.
In the middle of watching Clerks, Saylor can't help but refer to one of his favorites: The Story of Civilization, 11 volumes by Will Durant. We're watching slackers and talking about Emperor Trajan.
For Saylor, evangelist of intelligent ether, a big part of his life still is reading books, ink-on-paper books.
Saylor's first love was for comic books, but at 25 cents each they were expensive for an eight-year-old. His parents offered to pay him a dime for every "regular" book he read.
"So I learned quickly that if I read lots of normal books," he says, "I could get the money to buy comic books, and I must have read one summer a hundred books, just lots of books."
His mother knew something was up when she took him to the pediatrician around that time and the discussion between her second-grader and the doctor turned to the Isaac Asimov novel they were both reading. He says he had read "hundreds and hundreds" of books by the sixth grade. He had a book with him all the time, reading after school and on weekends.
"I became a science-fiction freak," he says. He took as his intellectual mentor Robert Heinlein, the sci-fi author best known for Stranger In a Strange Land. Saylor, who says he had read all of Heinlein's books twice by the time he was 18, scoffs at that mainstream work. His favorite was Have Space Suit—Will Travel, wherein a high-school senior wins a space suit and gets hauled off to Pluto in an alien ship, then to the spiral arm of the galaxy, where he saves the human race from a bug-eyed monster. Then he returns to earth and gets a full scholarship to MIT.
"So it stuck in my mind that really cool people go to MIT to build spaceships," Saylor says. So he went to MIT on an ROTC scholarship and majored in aeronautical engineering and the history of science. The aeronautical degree taught him basic engineering and made him want to fly jet planes. The history of science became his true love—and prepared him to change the world.
"That was the valuable one," he says. "I studied the structure of scientific revolution, how a new technique changes the paradigms of society or an economy. What happened when the printing press got introduced? Well, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution. What happened with the railroad? What happened with the telephone? What happened with nuclear medicine and genetics and antibiotics? Right? What is the impact of all these things? When you study the impact of those things, you're capable of understanding how you can actually succeed in technology, right?"
Right, and while the slackers in Clerks are standing around smoking cigarettes in an alley, Saylor sails off into a series of riffs about Julius Caesar crucifying pirates at age 18 and Josephus's histories of the Jewish people and how 18-year-old Augustus defeated Mark Antony and the fact that Emperor Trajan knew the world was round in the first century AD.
What lessons does he see in the lives of these heroes?
"The lessons are that people are capable of accomplishing great things if they set their mind to it and that we should not allow ourselves to be hijacked by a small goal or a pedestrian thought."
It's nearing 11 PM. Saylor has been talking almost nonstop for four hours. I ask if he sleeps.
"I sleep when I get bored," he says. "Not very often."
At the entrance MicroStrategy's executive suite atop Tycon Tower, a black kiosk with a monitor shows Saylor television interviews all day. It gives the impression that he was destined to be here. But Saylor got to that kiosk, and to his place as the $7-billion man, through a series of detours. He's the accidental billionaire.
"I wanted to be a jet pilot or an astronaut," he says, "go to Mars, build spaceships, gallivant across the universe." He got his wings, soloed, finished MIT, then unexpectedly flunked his physical—he has a benign heart murmur. No Top Gun.
Next he dreamed of being a professor and writing books, so he tried to get into a doctoral program. "I couldn't get fellowship funding," he says. So he figured he'd work for a couple of years and go back to school. He got a job with a consulting firm that went bankrupt after six months. Then he got a job with DuPont and built a computer model for the chemical company's global titanium business.
Saylor first created computer simulations at MIT. In a thesis he simulated a Renaissance Italian city-state with three branches of government and used computer science to design "a more stable, more equitable government." After that, modeling business simulations was easy.
The job for DuPont led to a consulting gig and then to the chemical giant's seeding Saylor's own company, which became MicroStrategy. Tom Spahr, Sid Banerjee, and Sanju Bansal, another frat brother from MIT, joined him in Wilmington, Delaware. They started building business-strategy software, which led into the computerized sifting of information, or data mining.
"You can't underestimate Sanju," says venture capitalist Mark Ein.
Bansal, now MicroStrategy's chief operating officer, is said to apply the corporate glue that keeps the pieces of Saylor's vision from flying apart. He also owns a 14-percent stake in the company, which puts his worth above the billion-dollar mark.
Bansal, a Fairfax native, helped inspire MicroStrategy's relocation from Wilmington to Washington in 1995. But Saylor says the defining moment for him came when he got off the train one day at Union Station and found himself amidst Washington's monumental architecture. It appealed to his taste for Roman history—and made Wilmington seem like Podunk.
Neither the founder nor the firm fits the profile of the dot-com companies that have struck it rich on the basis of luck, a few good ideas, and successful public stock offerings. Saylor started small, worked hard, grew slowly, went into personal debt, created products, sold software and services, and turned profits every year.
And unlike many technology entrepreneurs who are willing to cash out, Saylor is intent on building a corporate institution, more like General Motors than Monster. com—but GM on steroids. MicroStrategy's offices are brimming with bright young engineers and marketers and programmers who must pass muster in a three- to six-week boot camp of ten-hour days during which trainers teach them about the duties, demands, and culture of the company. They get reeducated every summer in MicroStrategy University.
Professor Saylor launches many boot camps with a three-hour motivational speech. Wearing a plaid shirt, a sweater vest, and black corduroy trousers, Saylor lectured a new class of 84 about the need to follow "timeless ethical values." He told the new employees that they could "bend reality through sheer force of will" and added: "We take integrity very seriously. We're on a character-development journey—character is destiny."
When Saylor tells the class he wants to save highway travelers from eating at restaurants that serve bad food by alerting them to the best and worst at the next off-ramp, one student asks the key question: "Do you respect the decision of someone to go to the wrong restaurant? Could the wrong restaurant for one person provide the best meal in another person's life?"
The brash recruit has exposed a chink in Mike Saylor's vision of intelligence for the masses. Information is rational, but intelligence often has an irrational component. Doesn't Saylor's vision of information in your ear, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, risk killing off serendipity? Idiosyncrasy? Happenstance?
Yes, he says, but he adds, "What we're about is squeezing out risk and pushing everybody toward progress, toward something better."
Saylor demands loyalty and hard work; in return his workers get a company cruise every year, great salaries—and stock options. They must like the transaction: Unlike many dot-com companies, MicroStrategy's employee-turnover rate is under 10 percent.
"Mike's vision has been consistent," says Sid Banerjee, now a vice president at the company. "Blindingly so."
Says Saylor: "Sometimes I feel like a trained monkey. I've been doing the same thing, and I'll keep doing the same thing."
Michael Saylor became very wealthy for one reason: While most founders and CEOs of successful companies wind up owning a small percentage of their companies' stock, Saylor owns 60 percent of MicroStrategy, or 44 million shares at the moment. Every time the stock goes up a dollar, he makes $44 million.
Most founders of technology companies sell their ideas to venture capitalists, who take ownership in trade. Not Saylor.
"Tongue in cheek, I would say that when we needed them, they wouldn't finance us," he says, "and when they would finance us, we didn't need them. It's not quite that simple, but that's a reasonable conclusion."
What's it like to be worth $7 billion?
"It's so much money," Saylor says, "it's surreal and inconceivable."
It is a frigid evening. Outside the window of Saylor's office, an orange moon sits atop Bethesda. From high atop Tycon Tower, traffic backed up on the Beltway looks like a string of red and white pearls stretching from horizon to horizon.
Saylor is explaining why he bought shares of two corporate jets, one a four-person craft and the other slightly larger. It's about not ego or comfort but money and time. Top lawyers make $600 an hour; Michael Saylor figures his time is worth $600,000 an hour, especially if he's going somewhere to close a deal.
"On a stock basis, if you figure the company has a market cap of $5 billion and the CEO makes a plus or minus 10-percent difference, then that means in essence I'm driving a billion dollars a year at 200 days at $5 million a day, or about $600,000 an hour."
On this $5-million day, Saylor has lunched with world-renowned architect Robert Stern about the new home he's building on 50 acres along Difficult Run in Great Falls—he's put out a 100-page request for proposals to design the estate, which might include a French chateau, Japanese gardens, a golf course, a football field. He has met with Nasdaq president Al Berkeley about investments and putting George Washington's library on the Internet, and he's pitched the president of J. Crew on MicroStrategy's services.
"The most fun I have is when I'm actually meeting with a client," Saylor says. "I like the billion-dollar pitch."
The techie part of him also spent a half hour with engineers designing the next new piece of software. He has fun doing that, too. Saylor says he has fun all day. Still, apparently, very little of his fun and happiness has to do with personal wealth.
"At this point for me to actually appreciate the money, I would have to quit my job, and, of course, the paradox is if I quit my job, the stock would crash," he says. "So I'm effectively on this gerbil wheel, this treadmill, and you've got to run faster and faster. And while in theory, you know, you could say, 'Oh, you're rich,' in practice you're not really rich in the time to appreciate it because my obligations have escalated as fast, if not faster, than the money."
Money was not that plentiful for the Saylors of Fairborn, Ohio. They lived in a government-issue, aluminum-siding duplex, shopped at a commissary, rode the bus, stuck to a $20-a-month recreation budget.
"Now when I go back to Ohio, what's amusing is I drive through the best neighborhood in my entire city where all the rich people live, you know, the rich, cocaine-snorting blah-blahs," he says. "They live on half-acre lots in, you know, 2,500-square-foot homes that would go for $200,000. Yet when I was a kid, that was it. That was the thing. It's a long way from home, right?"
Not that Saylor doesn't understand the value of money.
"When I became a billionaire on paper, then all of a sudden my ability to get to meetings to gain influence increased by an order of magnitude, whereas if I was just a millionaire or a multimillionaire—well, they're a dime a dozen. There's a ton of them."
Mike Saylor's vision of "telepathic intelligence" alarms privacy experts, but even within MicroStrategy not everyone is a believer.
"I have a little skepticism about putting radio transmitters in my brain," says Sid Banerjee. "But a company thrives on leaders who can articulate one simple vision."
Even Saylor admits he's a "zealot." He sees the edge, but he likes it.
"The way we've played this business and the way we have played the game at MicroStrategy is unwilling to hedge, ever, going to the limit, with the idea that it's better just to risk it all, all the time, than it is to play it safe."
"Do you still feel that way?" I ask.
"Absolutely," he responds. "I am doing stuff right now that risks it all."
And even Mike Saylor has a few privacy issues. Like religion. He was raised a Southern Baptist, but what's his religion now?
"I'd rather not say," he tells me. "I do believe in God."
He's the most eligible bachelor in the region. He had dinner last October with Jordanian King Abdullah II and Queen Rania. Rumors were that Saylor was dating King Hussein's widow, Queen Noor.
He admits he's dating. But who?
"Can't remember," he says.
At his 35th-birthday party last month at Cities in Adams Morgan, Saylor reverted to his frat-boy persona, bestowing kisses and hugs on more than a few young ladies. He also took the opportunity to announce that he's running for president. Some day.
As for playing God, in his kitchen one Saturday afternoon Saylor slips a gold ring off his finger and slides it across the table. There's a beaver with a dam behind it embossed on the ring.
"A beaver plays God in that stream," he says. "Edison was playing God, as was Rockefeller, as was Carnegie.
"I don't think it's my goal to change everything in the world," he says, "but it is a quasi-religious decision to raise reality from ignorance to a new reality—omniscience. It would be an abomination in the eyes of God if he had to live in the world we live in."
Unless Michael Saylor makes it over.