Power Players

In 1994, Bill Gates replied to a stranger's email within 18 minutes — and their exchange reveals a hilarious truth about the billionaire

Bill Gates
George Steinmetz | Getty Images

Imagine a world where you could e-mail Bill Gates...and actually get a response.

One would think that someone like Gates, the billionaire tech entrepreneur who co-created Microsoft, does not have time to spend hours and hours monitoring his inbox, let alone answer messages from strangers.

That's something I would have placed money on — that is, until I recently came across a profile of Gates published in a 1994 issue of The New Yorker, entitled "E-Mail From Bill." Reading the article, I was certainly impressed, not least by how accurate one of the most important thought leaders of our time was at predicting that digital communication would one day come to entirely rule our lives.

It's also mind-boggling that John Seabrook, a relatively unknown journalist at the time, could fire off an email to the Microsoft co-founder (and, in 1994, the richest man in America, according to Forbes), and get a response – from the man himself – within 18 minutes after hitting the "send" button. It even led to a month-long digital relationship between the two.

But the most surprising (and pretty hilarious) discovery from the profile is something you never would have guessed about Gates.

In his initial email to Gates, Seabrook asks: "What kind of understanding of another person can email give you?"

As it turns out, the answer is a lot.

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'Sent (on the fly) from my computer. Please excuse any typos…'

Gates thinks spell-check is a waste of time. And not just spell-check, but grammar and digital communication etiquette in general.

Admittedly, Gates never says this openly. But reading through his emails to Seabrook, it's impossible not to notice the typos, missing apostrophes and periods. His commas were outnumbered only by fragmented sentences, and his email vocabulary is by no means sophisticated: "stuff" is "cool," "neat," "crummy," "super," "supercool."

How could it be that one of the world's smartest, richest and most successful entrepreneurs doesn't bother to delineate between "its'" and "it's"? The horror!

Seabrook even comments on this in the article, noting that, "Good spelling is not what Bill Gates is about, either. He never signed his messages to me, but sometimes he even put an '&' at the end, which, I learned, means 'Write back' in e-mail language."

Gates never even once addressed Seabrook by name.

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The art of not caring

To be fair, A.I.-powered spell-check wasn't at its most refined at the time.

But the more I thought about it, the more I understood. It's not as if Gates doesn't know how to spell. He simply doesn't care. In fact, caring about the little things is essentially the opposite of what email is about for Gates. Instead, it's all about efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.

Put another way, Gates doesn't have time for things like going back and double-checking for spelling errors. It's been widely known that while creating Microsoft, he took years away from listening to music or watching television. The topic of time itself often comes up in conversations with Gates. "Time is the scarce resource and I treat it that way," he once told USA Today.

How could it be that one of the world's smartest, richest and most successful entrepreneurs does not bother to delineate between "its'" and "it's"?
Tom Popomaronis
senior director of product innovation, Hawkins Group

In that light, it all makes sense. It's clear Gates' views about time have been largely influenced by technology. The guy cringes at the thought of a minute wasted. "The digital revolution is all about facilitation — creating tools to make things easy," he wrote in another email to Seabrook.

Real talk, according to Gates

For the most part, we're taught that it's unwise to be reckless about spelling and ignore the traditional rules of email etiquette. But that doesn't mean there aren't benefits to using words and phrases that can be understood by everyone.

When you eliminate jargon and gobbledygook, people find you much more relatable. As proven by Gates' email etiquette, people are more likely to pay attention to messages written in a more casual. How many times has a marketing email prompted you to hit the "delete" button?

Researchers and psychologists have been studying this for years. A 2012 study published in The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning found that when people read something written in an informal tone, their brains are tricked into thinking they are more involved.

So the next time someone harps on your grammar and word choice in an email, just say, "If it's good enough for Bill Gates, it's good enough for me. Period."

Tom Popomaronis is a commerce expert and proud Baltimore native. Currently, he is the Senior Director of Product Innovation at the Hawkins Group. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @tpopomaronis .

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