I was out at the Microsoft Mountain View campus a few weeks ago for an event hosted by their venture relations group. I had the chance to meet Chris Liddell, MSFT’s CFO, along with 3 of their divisional CFO’s. It was a pretty wide ranging discussion from how they are thinking about M&A to several strategic area of focus to how the divisions are working together on projects that cross divisional boundaries.
The thing that struck me the most was not the WHAT of their thinking, but the HOW. I participated in a break-out session with Tami Reller, CFO of Platforms and Services division (which includes their search and online advertising properties). There were about 15 of us in the group (including 4 or 5 from MSFT) and we quickly went deep on a few areas of particular interest to this division. This is a $17.5 Bn (with a b) operating unit for MSFT. While I know that MSFT is as beurocratic as the next large software company, what really stood out to me in this conversation (and, in fact, the entire day I spent with MSFT management) was how fluid and innovative their thinking was (at least on these subjects). They think about and talk about their business like many of our portfolio companies do – looking for market trends, leveraging existing assets and competencies and with a view to a return on their investment. Sure – you have to tack on a handful of zeros to the numbers in their business plans, but at heart they are engaged in the kind of thinking (at least as it relates to their online properties) that is going on in conference rooms in venture firms and start-up companies all over the world. It was a good reminder to me that even within large organizations you can think and act much more nimbly – at least if you want to.