Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech wrapped three weeks ago, and I promised to share my observations, which somehow got stuck in my notebook. My first report, on bloggers, making money on the Net, and poor VCs, ran here. With apologies, here’s the rest:
Dinner with Jeff. A few years ago I attended a Microsoft (MSFT) annual dinner at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and to my great surprise found myself seated next to Bill Gates, who sipped wine, talked politics and held forth in fascinating detail on what scientific breakthroughs it would take to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.
In Half Moon Bay, late last month, the seating gods placed me next to another nerdy, iconic billionaire-entrepreneur-executive from Seattle – Jeff Bezos, of Amazon.com (AMZN). At the risk of gushing, my dinner with Bezos was one of the highlights of the conference. (And I was competing for Bezos’ attention with Time Inc. uber-executive John Squires, which made the bon mots Bezos was able to throw my way all the more special.
I’d never actually talked with Bezos before, and I frankly didn’t know what to expect. Given how famous he is, he’s actually somewhat elusive with the media. Yet here he was, jawboning about fatherhood, consumer technology (how he and his wife use and sample it differently) and management. He was completely relaxed – perhaps because he knew in two days Amazon would release solid financial results. (He also hung out for quite a bit of the conference, attending sessions that had nothing to do with him or Amazon. We love that.)
What stuck with me from our conversation (over more than a few glasses of wine and as I was preparing for my blogger smackdown), was his answer when I asked if back when Amazon was a media punching bag if he followed the criticism and if it bothered him. His reply: Yes and no. Bezos said he absolutely followed the Amazon bashing – and still does – because it’s important that he know what employees are hearing so he can answer the criticism to them at the company’s three annual employee get-togethers. He insists the carping doesn’t get to him – it’s essential that he as a CEO knows what’s being said. Makes sense to me.
Music men. Chris DeWolfe and Bobby Kotick make for an interesting duo. DeWolfe is tall and thin; Kotick is less tall and less thin. DeWolfe is a hip club rat and natty dresser who is up on the latest bands. Kotick praises the “sedentary lifestyle” of video games, might as well be dressed from head to toe by Old Navy and professes to prefer fine art to popular music.
For all the differences, the two are fast friends and together preside over a couple of the more important and unlikely forces in the music industry today, MySpace (a division of News Corp. (NWS) and Activision Blizzard (ATVI). DeWolfe wanted to chat about MySpace’s upcoming launch of MySpace Music, a joint venture with most of the major record labels. Its main thrust is to make legit the current practices of MySpace members, who love to plaster music they don’t own on their MySpace pages.
Kotick took the opportunity to talk up how Guitar Hero – Activision’s blockbuster video game – could become a threat to Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes Music Store. He first made that comment a few weeks ago when the merger with Vivendi’s Blizzard closed, and the iTunes killer since has taken on a life of its own. I got the impression Kotick isn’t particularly serious about pursuing a go-for-the-jugular music-sales application. At the same time, he’s happy to have people continue to speculate about it as it clearly pleases and excites his partners at Universal Music, who would love to see a healthy competitor to iTunes.
This is and that. I’ve mentioned that what makes our conference great is its eclectic mix of personalities. So here are some random observations of who else I saw and met at Brainstorm. Internet legend Vint Cerf, now of Google, hung out the entire conference, resplendent in a three-piece suit … I found out Sean Maloney, Intel’s top chip salesman and marketer, is a voracious reader of history. China is high on his list right now … two scions of the PR world were in attendance, Richard Edelman and Steven Rubenstein, whose dads both founded big-foot agencies.
I didn’t ask, but now I’d like to know, do you guys know each other?! … Neil Young met recently with a member of the Ford family to talk cars … Daniel Wallach heads one of the more interesting “green” ventures I’ve heard of, Greensburg GreenTown, which is trying to re-build an entire Kansas town in a environmentally positive way … VJ Joshi, a big shot at Hewlett-Packard and a director at Yahoo , doesn’t want to talk about the latter. Period … David Kirkpatrick is one of the great conference impresarios of all time!