Two years ago, when software start-up MicroStrategy was posting modest annual revenues of about $50 million, the company's cocky CEO, Michael Saylor, proclaimed that he wanted to create a billion-dollar company.
A technology analyst, who thought Saylor must be nuts, called and demanded to know if he was serious about reaching that target. "Yes," answered Saylor, "initially." He was actually dreaming of building a $10 billion company.
At the time, it seemed an absurd boast. But today the company has a market value of roughly $3.4 billion, and nobody's laughing at Saylor's vision. Saylor himself still owns more than 50 percent of the company--and he reckoned over lunch last week that his personal net worth is now about $2.2 billion.
MicroStrategy is celebrating its 10th birthday tonight with a fancy black-tie bash at the Corcoran Gallery. It's the kind of showy gesture that has made Saylor one of the most prominent of Washington's new generation of high-tech billionaires. And it's what will make his company one of technology's brightest success stories--or one of its noisiest and most audacious failures.
Brash and boyish at 34, Saylor is one of the baby-faced killers who've come to dominate the technology world. The combination of unlined face and ferocious ambition is a quality he shares with other top CEOs, such as John Chambers of Cisco Systems, Steve Case of America Online and Bill Gates of Microsoft. They're technology's true believers. It's as if they're hearing voices that are inaudible to the rest of us, so certain do they seem about the future.
Saylor's business vision is to use his company's software tools to create an "information refinery," which can process the mountain of raw information our society creates and spit out the little nuggets that are relevant for each of us.
Right now, most of MicroStrategy's customers are big companies that want to understand the information that's buried in their databases. Saylor says he can help banks discover when an employee or customer is ripping them off; he can help retailers analyze their sales data to manage marketing and inventory better; he can help online brokerages provide instant warnings to customers about movements in their stocks.
But that's just the beginning. The real opportunity, says Saylor, is to connect this data-mining technology with individuals--using wireless phones to "whisper in your ear" the information you need to know right now.
Sit with Saylor for a few minutes and he'll conjure up dozens of such uses for this technology: a "drug alert" that will instantly notify you if you're likely to have an adverse reaction to a drug you've been prescribed; a "stock alert" that will tell you when your stocks are crashing and restructure your portfolio; a "travel alert" that will notify you if a flight you're booked on has been cancelled; a "fire alert" that will wake you up if there's a fire in your neighborhood; a "traffic alert" that will tell you the quickest way to get home from work each night.
"People don't have to die from taking the wrong drug!" proclaims Saylor in the semi-shout that seems to be his normal tone of voice. "They don't have to lose money on that declining stock!"
Saylor rattles off mind-boggling estimates of how much his innovations could save--$200 billion in productivity that's now lost from people waiting in traffic jams! Three trillion dollars in wasted goods and services that wouldn't be produced if people had better information! Is he a visionary? Is he a huckster? Saylor is one of those people who make you realize that it's sometimes hard to draw a line between the two.
Most of the data-mining tools Saylor describes already exist. The radical part of his vision is the notion that nuggets of refined information will be zapped out to each of us through wireless devices--which he predicts will carry 50 percent of all economic transactions within 10 years. Saylor has a lot of company in believing that so-called 3G (for "third generation") wireless phones--which will be able to transmit data at high speeds when they hit the market in several years--will power the next big revolution in the tech world.
"Wireless will do to the Internet what the Internet has done to brick-and-mortar business," says Saylor. Companies that don't embrace this next wave will be left stranded like old motels off the interstate highway, he says. And as the next wave gathers strength, it will create "100 companies bigger than Microsoft."
And of course, Saylor intends that MicroStrategy will be one of those companies. To get ready, he's building himself a house that would impress even Bill Gates. He's found 48 acres in Great Falls, bordering a pristine tributary of the Potomac called Difficult Run. He's planning to build a $25 million estate--with Japanese gardens, indoor and outdoor pools, a nine-hole golf course and an underground garage for 30 cars.
Will Saylor pull it off? Is our local boy visionary selling sizzle, or real steak? This one will be fun to watch, as Washington's home-grown technology revolution accelerates into the 21st century.