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The man behind Silicon Valley

Tony Fadell counts himself lucky to have been mentored by Bill Campbell

September/October 2015

Tony Fadell, 46, is an American inventor who worked on the first iPods and iPhones. He sold Nest, his “learning thermostat”, to Google for $3 billion. Bill Campbell, 74, is a former marketing director, now chairman of the software company Intuit 

To describe Bill in a single phrase would be too hard, but one thing you can say: he is the man behind most of the best-known names in Silicon Valley. He was a mentor to Steve Jobs, to both Sergey Brin and Larry Page, to Eric Schmidt, to Ben Horowitz, Bill Gurley – the list goes on and on. And he’s also been a mentor to me.

Bill is as American as an American can get. He was raised in a Pennsylvania steelworking town and went to the public school where his dad was superintendent. He studied economics and teaching at Columbia, and played on its All-Ivy football team, which he coached in the early 1970s. After that he became a marketing executive in an ad agency, and then vice-president of marketing at Apple. He’s seen many things, from the very earliest days of Silicon Valley where humans did basically all the work, to today, where it’s much more a combination of humans plus technology.

Bill is quiet, but incredibly present, and he understands how to get the best out of people. He doesn’t worry about the bits and the bytes; where he comes from is the human element. He’ll make you think about what you are doing for your customer. So, the first time I met him was in an Apple board meeting, where we were showing off new products and getting feedback. Bill immediately asked the tough question: why are we doing this? He controlled the conversation, but in a very constructive way. Steve Jobs could dominate any room, and there were very few people he’d defer to – but Steve would pass the baton to Bill and allow him to drive the conversation. That and the insightful questions Bill asked made me realise he was a super-special individual.

With Nest Labs, he’s been really helpful in understanding the best way to build the organisation, so we didn’t have just a great product but great everything else. He’s taught me that your star players must be upfront, honest and transparent; there are always problems, but if you bring them up we can all rally round them to solve them. Work as a team, don’t worry about the individual. He’s a great guy. 

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