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Today's Closed-Door Breakfast with Ballmer: Who was there, and what did they talk about?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 16, 2009 01:58 PM

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Who got an invite to be part of this morning's private breakfast with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, at Microsoft's Kendall Square outpost?

Here's the fairly-complete list of who was there... this was a small group of just about a dozen people:

- Tom Hopcroft, President, Mass Technology Leadership Council
- Laura Fitton, Founder, Oneforty/Pistachio Consulting
- Tim Rowe, Founder, Cambridge Innovation Center/New Atlantic Ventures
- George Bell, Partner, General Catalyst Partners; former CEO, Excite@Home
- Brian Halligan, CEO, HubSpot
- Steve O'Leary, Partner, General Catalyst Partners
- Michael Greeley, Founder, Flybridge Capital Partners
- Bijan Sabet, Partner, Spark Capital
- Dan Bricklin, Founder, Software Garden
- John Landry, Founder, Lead Dog Ventures
- Bill Warner, CEO, Warner Research
- Diane Hessan, CEO, Communispace
- Gloria Larson, President, Bentley College
- Joseph Steig, Venturewell/National Collegiate Innovators and Inventors Alliance/Long River Ventures
- Gus Weber, Community Relations, Microsoft Cambridge
- Annmarie Levins, Associate General Counsel, Microsoft

Bricklin tells me that most of the discussion was "clearly off-the-record, and there were a few comments where we were asked not to tweet or blog or whatever." Bill Warner, founder of Avid Technology and an angel investor, didn't want to say much aside from, "I'm actually not sure if it was on-the-record or off, but it was a nice meeting."

Here's what was discussed:

I spoke to four of the participants. They told me that the group went around the table introducing themselves, then Ballmer talked for six or seven minutes, and then he took questions and comments. The breakfast lasted about an hour.

Mostly, the group commended Microsoft on contributing to the innovation economy here in Boston with the growth of its Kendall Square NERD (New England Research & Development) Center, and implored the company to keep it up. Before NERD opened last year, Microsoft's local presence was much more diffuse.

Ballmer mentioned Microsoft's recent acquisition of Interactive Supercomputing, a Waltham company whose employees have now been folded into the NERD Center. He said that Microsoft will likely to continue acquiring local companies.

The one sparky interchange -- no surprise -- seems to have been initiated by angel investor (and former Lotus exec) John Landry, who said it seemed to him that Microsoft is still very much focused on desktop computing, and considers all other devices to be peripherals to the PC. Landry waved his iPhone and said he does 80 percent of his work on that device, likening the iPhone to a computer that has a phone app on it -- not just a phone. Ballmer responded by saying that Microsoft was aware that it has to do much better with Windows Mobile 7, its forthcoming mobile operating system (the release of which has been pushed back into 2010). "We know we have to kill on that one," a meeting attendee recalled Ballmer saying.

"You can mix it up with him and he'll mix it up back," said Landry, who has known Ballmer since Landry was chief technology officer at Lotus. "I wanted to put some life in the party." Microsoft's strategy for cloud computing and Web-based applications didn't come up at all during the meeting, Landry told me.

Twitter entrepreneur Laura Fitton also noted that very few people are developing Twitter apps for Windows Mobile. Ballmer responded by saying Microsoft realizes that the company is engaged in a long campaign to get more developers writing apps for the Windows Mobile OS.

One participant described Ballmer as very "workman-like" and said he comes across as more like a COO than a CEO. I asked Diane Hessan if Ballmer yelled at the group (as he is legendary for doing with Microsoft employees, to get them fired up.) "He did not yell. But he was very dynamic, and a great listener," she said. "It was definitely a conversation, not like one of these events where they call it a conversation but it's really just someone talking at you."

Venture capitalist Michael Greeley told me that the meeting "wasn't brochure-ware. It was real nitty-gritty stuff: 'Here's what we're good at, and here's where we screwed up.' He was very approachable." Greeley said he had not met Ballmer before.

"There was a lot of discussion around rebuilding the community," Greeley continued. The group also talked a bit about the convergence of IT, science, and healthcare -- a particular interest of Greeley's, since his Back Bay firm invests in medical devices and healthcare technologies.

Dan Bricklin, co-creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet software, told me he'd met Ballmer many times before. "He's very pragmatic. He talked about business models, and various things Microsoft has done right and wrong."

"They're happy being here," Bricklin continued. "They buy companies, and they will continue to buy companies here, so their presence will grow." Bricklin didn't want to talk in detail about what was said.

Following the meeting, Brian Halligan, CEO of the Cambridge-based digital marketing firm HubSpot, tweeted: "Met Steve Ballmer this am -- good/smart guy. Boy, he has a hell of a tough job. Fierce competitive battles in every market."

And prior to the meeting, Tim Rowe and Michael Greeley wrote this congratulatory article, "Thank You Microsoft," for Xconomy.

Microsoft spokesperson Catherine Collins described the breakfast as a "great discussion about innovation and what's happening in Boston -- and that was our goal," adding "it was great to connect Steve with the people who were there."

Update: The Globe's Hiawatha Bray has this report on the speech Ballmer gave to the Chief Executive's Club of Boston at lunch. And the club offers video of the event here.

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1 comments so far...
  1. You would have been a good addition to the meeting, Scott.

    Brian.

    Posted by brian halligan October 16, 09 02:24 PM
 

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