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Bill Campbell has coached some of the top tech executives of our time, from Steve Jobs to Jeff Bezos. And when he’s talking, the very, very smart money listens.
CEO and co-founder of OZY
By Carlos Watson
Bill Campbell is the most important executive you’ve probably never heard of. His official biography is impressive: chairman of Intuit, president of Go Corp., founder and CEO of Claris Corp., former Apple executive and its longest serving board member. But it’s what he does on the side that has made an even bigger impact. This former Columbia University football coach is an executive advisor to some of the biggest names in technology, from Apple’s Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos at Amazon to Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. He also worked with Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen, who went on to found one of the country’s top venture capital firms, Andreessen Horowitz.
Campbell typically declines to be interviewed, saying that the CEOs he advises make the decisions and deserve the credit. But he recently sat down for a rare talk with OZY. Yesterday Campbell weighed in on the importance of operational ability and why the classic sales process is wrong. Today he talks about his early years at Apple, appreciating creative types and Silicon Valley then and now.
This is the second of a two-part interview. It has been edited and condensed.
The Budding Geek
The Pennsylvania native and former Ivy League football coach was always a geek at heart — even when he worked at an old-school company like Eastman Kodak.
I used to take all those green sheets from Kodak, take them home on Sunday and put them around a glass table and pound it all out. I had all the summary sheets of the ship-to locations. I’d break them down, see where there was retail and find out what was strong, what was weak, what markets were good. Where was Fuji affecting us and the private labels and things like that? I mean, I was a good computer jock at that time. In fact, I was the only one that did that at Kodak. They would say to me, “Where did you get your information?”
Silicon Valley Then and Now
It wasn’t all hoodies and hackers back in 1983 when Campbell first started at Apple, which had just gone public. Campbell began as VP of marketing, added VP of sales to his responsibilities a year later and was quickly promoted to executive vice president that same year.
The evolution of the Valley is just amazing to me. One of the things that I think is important … is when I first came out here, everybody wanted to hire the IBM sales guys to be their CEO. Blue suit, white shirt, red tie. Unfortunately, these guys were all sales guys. I mean, that’s all they did. And those guys all failed miserably because they didn’t know the product, they didn’t understand the technology; all they could do was sell. I like to think of myself as being one of the unusual ones that came from a different industry, came from the East Coast, and then got himself absorbed into what was going on in the world and learned how to become a manager of a technology company — technology people, technology creativity, all of that.
For Steve, the fact that he got pushed out of Apple and had to go and start NeXT and all that stuff … I mean, he was a completely different manager when he came back than when he left. Those stories about him screaming … all those things come up because people will say bad things about you. They exaggerate what a wild-ass he was years ago. If you go back and think about it, when I was a football coach, if anybody had a video tape, it would probably show me … (laughs).
Bonding with the Nerds
Unlike some of the other East Coast executives who headed to Silicon Valley, Campbell valued creative types, especially engineers.
One thing that helped me was learning that the intellectual property of an advertising agency is the creative. I worked at Jay Walter Thompson, which was a machine known for good research, good marketing, good positioning and mediocre creative. But if you’re a big company like Proctor and Gamble or AT&T or General Motors, you don’t give a shit about [ad agencies’] market research. They’re going to hire the best guys out of school to do that. Instead, they went where the best creative was. So when I came out here, I had a great relationship with the creatives. My appreciation for engineering was enormously high, right at the beginning.
Campbell was hired as vice president of marketing by then-CEO John Sculley.
[Sculley] interviewed me at Pepsi and I didn’t take that job. And then he takes the job at Apple and calls me up out of the blue — I was at Kodak in Europe — so he calls me up and says, “I want somebody that’s had some good marketing experience, somebody that’s mature enough to manage a lot of these wild young kids. Because the whole company is a bunch of wild-ass young people.” So I said, “Fuck yes, I’ll take this job.” I wanted it. It was important to me that I sit around the table. I wanted to be one of the officers.
The Story behind the Apple Store
Opening Apple stores seems like an obvious move in retrospect, but it was actually an evolution of the sales process.
When I took over sales, there were no sales channels for computers. We were just trying to use consumer electronic stores, and that’s how we got the little guys. Then some of these big guys started to sign up, like Computer Land. The retailers were starting to dictate what the margins were, and Steve said, “I’m going to sell it too. You can sell the fucking thing for any price you want that’s not under this price. Put a service package with it and do whatever you want.” He got rid of all that emotion that was going through the retail chain at that time.
It’s the same way he did the stores. We started off with the idea that we should get a store within the store. So if you go to some of these places, you build your own mini store, you pay for the station you put in there and then you realize the people suck. And then you put in your own people … He looked at it and started to do his own store model. And that little model that he was using for just a store within a store become a big, big store over in Cupertino. Then wherever a whole warehouse was, we built a store. Steve’s idea was that it had to be clean and simple. All of the stores today, they still have that clean, simple look.
On Going from Being a Football Coach to an Entrepreneur
Campbell gets asked about this a lot.
You know what I always tell entrepreneurs when I get asked that question? Did you ever see my record? (Laughs.) (Editor’s Note: In six years at Columbia, he won 12 out of 54 games.) All the great coaches I knew were upbeat, high quality, really, really good guys. You wanted to be like that.