Caesar And Edison And... Saylor?

Michael Saylor, the CEO of MicroStrategy, says his role models are Caesar, Churchill, Lincoln and Gandhi. He's not much interested, he says, in other businessmen, except maybe Henry Ford. Just as Caesar's mission was to "spread civilization," Saylor says his mission is to "purge ignorance from the planet." He wants to make intelligence into a public utility, available "like water or electricity" (Edison is another hero). He wants to create "technology to place the right piece of insight with the right decision maker at the right time." He envisions a society in which choices are always well informed, an environment where danger is avoided and opportunities are never lost. He wants to eliminate waste and vanquish mediocrity.

How will he achieve this smart new world? By placing a wireless device one tenth the size of a watch on your wrist and a tiny speaker in your ear, whispering practical information pulled off the Web. Has your flight home been canceled? A little voice will alert you, book another flight and call your wife, so she won't wait at the airport. Need a doctor? The little voice will help you find the right one. Stock investments plunging? The voice will warn you--and, if you wish, sell or buy shares. Traffic jam or bad weather ahead? Kid in trouble in school? Housebreaker loose in the neighborhood? More discreet whispers, more knowledge, more wisdom, more security. And for Mike Saylor and MicroStrategy, more fame and fortune.

Saylor is still working on the technology to deliver this dream. But he has no trouble talking about it, relentlessly. His staff jokes about the time he began to spin out his vision to a group of new employees--and was still talking eight hours later. An MIT grad who says he learned more from History of Science than astrophysics, Saylor rattles on about "technology paradigms" and his obsession with the Roman Empire, "the first great systems engineers." ("You know," he says in his urgent, high-pitched voice, "the origin of the modern railroad-track gauge is the military specification of a Roman war chariot.") It all sounds a little grandiose, but Saylor speaks with utter conviction, and his business record backs him up.

In its 10-year history, MicroStrategy has grown from a couple of MIT frat brothers dreaming of the Next Big Thing to 1,600 employees and revenues approaching $200 million. The Washington, D.C.-based company has been doubling in size every year and, unlike many high-tech start-ups, actually turns a profit. Saylor himself is worth more than $4 billion on paper. Lately he has set out, with a kind of boyish bravado, to become a public oracle. He is willing to take risks for recognition. In the last few weeks he has gone on CBS's "60 Minutes" to discuss privacy in the Information Age (a ticklish subject for a company that wants to know everything about your wants and needs) and appeared on a local TV news show as Washington's most eligible--and wealthiest--bachelor.

Saylor, 34, got rich by making businessmen smarter. His company persuaded large corporations like Kmart, MCI, Nissan and McDonald's to create vast "data warehouses" about their customers and wrote software to help executives "mine the data." For example, until MicroStrategy came along, Victoria's Secret stocked every store with the same bras and colored lingerie. But then data mining discovered that, for whatever reason, bra sizes are bigger on Chicago women and that New Yorkers had a preference for lavender underwear. MicroStrategy's 800 corporate clients have learned to make similarly informed choices.

For his next act, Saylor wants to enlighten individual consumers. He has created an intelligence network called Strategy.com that feeds personalized investment and weather information by fax, e-mail and cell phone to about 100,000 customers; news, traffic and sports are coming online soon. He envisions more, and more far-reaching, applications. He argues that everyone should carry a tiny GPS (Global Positioning System) device that could serve as a personal alarm: set it off, and the police would know your precise location. "It would prevent a million rapes a year," he claims. Reverse-engineered, such a locater might also allow the authorities to spy on you, the kind of privacy concern that could bedevil Saylor's vision.

Saylor has tried to preview the future in his own company. "Mike has tried to institutionalize virtue," says Sanju Bansal, MicroStrategy's cofounder. The son of an Air Force master sergeant, Saylor demands military discipline. All new recruits must go through a four- to six-week "boot camp," complete with an outdoor rope course, to weed out the slackers. From his fraternity, Saylor has borrowed the ideal, as he grandiloquently describes it, of the "divinity of friendship." All MicroStrategy workers must spend a week together (without spouses) sailing on a cruise ship. Saylor's employees, mostly twentysomethings from elite schools, seem reverential, although in a possibly revealing slip of the tongue, one described his boss as "an authoritarian on history."

Saylor says he does not shout, but allows that he does become "petulant" if his subordinates "give up." Twice he has turned the company in sharply new directions--from consulting to software and then to e-commerce--and demanded the transformation in a matter of months. The stress on Bansal, Saylor's MIT frat brother and the COO who has to implement his vision, has been severe at times. "Mike and I were extremely good friends," says Bansal. "We're good friends now, but not as good as we were. A natural tension gets built up." Saylor himself works night and day and lives in a nondescript suburban town house decorated mostly with framed press clippings about MicroStrategy. He plans to build a vast mansion in the Virginia horse country, but first he is reading hundreds of books on architecture and landscape design.

Saylor chose the Washington, D.C., area for his corporate headquarters because the U.S. capital is, he proclaims, "the architectural and cultural center of our civilization." More to the point, he needs to be near Washington if he wants to influence what goes on there. Before long, Congress will have to address the privacy concerns raised by companies storing vast databanks of personal information. Saylor knows that customers will have to trust MicroStrategy the way they now trust a bank with their money. Government regulation, he understands, is necessary, and he wants to have a say in making the rules. "Henry Ford," he says, "knew that you needed traffic lights and speed limits." He indicates that he might want to go into government at some point after his company attains the scale of, say, Ford Motor Co., and even hints vaguely at presidential ambitions. Why not? For his MIT thesis, he extrapolated from Machiavelli to create a mathematical model of a Renaissance Italian city-state. Nothing, it seems, is beyond Saylor's faith in the power of intelligence. Not even the U.S. Congress.

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