Silicon Valley 'Coach' Bill Campbell On Steve Jobs' Legacy, Developing Great Products5:58 PM EST Wed. Mar. 07, 2012
For Bill Campbell, it's all about developing great products.
That was the gist of the advice offered by Campbell to budding entrepreneurs and IT executives in a question-and-answer session Wednesday at the Mass Technology Leadership Council annual meeting in Cambridge, Mass. And the 500 attendees were hanging on Campbell's every word -- not surprising given that he's known as "the Coach of Silicon Valley" for his mentoring relationships with the late Steve Jobs, Google's Larry Page and other key figures in the IT industry.
Campbell spoke at length about his time with Jobs -- the two became close friends in the last years of Jobs' life -- and Campbell's business advice and his stories about the Apple co-founder often ran together in the 75-minute Q&A session.
"When you ask what worked from Steve, it [was] a passionate view of what a customer really wants," Campbell said, responding to a question about what lessons the business world should take from the Apple co-founder's life. "He wanted to make great products."
Campbell served as Apple's marketing vice president in the mid-1980s before Jobs was forced out of the company in 1985, and he later ran the company's Claris software division. He later left the company, serving as CEO of Go Corp., an early tablet computer maker, then CEO of Intuit from 1994 to 1998 (he remains the company's chairman). When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he asked Campbell to serve on Apple's board and he continues to do so today.
Campbell also serves as an advisor to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, such as Google co-founder Larry Page. That, combined with the fact that he was Columbia University's head football coach in the 1970s before getting into business, led to the "Coach of Silicon Valley" moniker.
Speaking with a raspy voice (he appeared to have a cold) and punctuating his comments with an occasional expletive, the blunt-talking Campbell addressed multiple topics, from Steve Jobs' legacy and Apple's current challenges, to assessments of Google's strategies, to words of wisdom for entrepreneurs seeking venture capital.
Campbell had harsh words for the Steve Jobs biography written by Walter Isaacson, which Campbell referred to as "that damn book," that appeared shortly after Jobs' death. Campbell said the book -- which he admitted he has not read -- focused too much on the negative aspects of Jobs life. Jobs' legacy, he said, was his "fanatical devotion to creating great products."
Although Campbell is mentioned in a number of places in the biography, he said he did not cooperate in Isaacson's research for the book.
Campbell repeated the "great products" philosophy when asked about criticism that Apple develops "closed" products.
"This is all about creating great products for customers, and if it takes a closed system to do it, god damn it, do it!" he said, adding that Jobs did not want to rely on an outside ecosystem for that to happen. "The idea of the closed system was to get a great result for customers."
As for figuring out what products to develop, Campbell said businesses should identify a need, then let engineers use their ingenuity to devise a way to meet that need. "Our view is that great, great products come from engineers," he said.
But he was down on conducting marketing research to test new product ideas. "How are you going to ask customers to evaluate something they've never conceived of before?" he asked. "A good marketing person would never have created the Macintosh."
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Asked about Google's direction, Campbell said in its past the company has sometimes tried to do "too many" things.
"Google prides itself on being a technology company and the technology innovation that comes out of there is phenomenal. But it doesn't always fit what customers want. Apple is completely different," he said. (Campbell stopped serving as an advisor to Google in 2010 when Apple and Google found themselves increasingly competing with each other.)
Google today is "a very professional company" that is moving toward Jobs' philosophy of making all its products work together, Campbell said.
Campbell pointed to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as one Silicon Valley executive who "thinks fanatically about customers" rather than about whether the company's IPO will be bigger than Google's.
Campbell said the biggest challenge facing Apple and CEO Tim Cook is not losing focus. "The biggest danger Apple has right now with Steve gone is that they [try to] do too many things." Cook, he said, "has to be really good at restraining everybody's enthusiasm" over the countless new product ideas "popping up out of [the Apple] lab every day."
Campbell also had some tough-love advice for Boston-area entrepreneurs seeking venture capital. "Get on a plane and go to San Francisco," he said to groans and laughter. And then to applause: "My view is you gotta get some wild-ass venture capitalists out here who are willing to take chances on bizarre ideas."
Along with providing funding, Silicon Valley VCs offer startups more support in terms of advice, industry connections, visibility and more, Campbell said. East Coast VCs should do the same he said, noting the number of colleges and universities surrounding the hotel where the Mass Technology Leadership Council meeting was being held. "You have entrepreneurs coming out of those places who are dying to do stuff."
Responding to a question about what skills college graduates need to succeed today, Campbell said too many people come out of school focused on quickly getting rich from a startup.
"Go into a company, try to learn," he said. "Go to a place where people are good, have some experience, [and] can teach you what to do."
Asked what he would do if he were starting a company today, Campbell said "Getting the best engineering person I could find would be the most important to me."
And then he returned to the theme of developing great products. "You don't need to be an engineer. But you need to care deeply that everything you do is to try to make sure you are providing a better product or a better service. That's what it's all about," he said.
"If you're not passionate about products, go to Wall Street."