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Originally published Monday, September 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Marketing pioneer recalls early days of Intel and Apple

It's Regis McKenna's 69th birthday, and he's sitting in one of his favorite Silicon Valley restaurants, the Lion & Compass, surveying...

San Jose Mercury News

It's Regis McKenna's 69th birthday, and he's sitting in one of his favorite Silicon Valley restaurants, the Lion & Compass, surveying the chattering lunchtime crowd.

"If you look around this room," he says, "you'd find people from multibillion-dollar companies and people struggling to make their first buck."

It's one of the things he loves about Silicon Valley — the idea that anyone with the right idea and the right team can find himself or herself launched from obscurity to the big leagues.

It's happened before, and McKenna knows it. For decades it seemed that more often than not he was there when it did. McKenna, who opened his public-relations firm in 1970, is a valley wise man — a counselor, confessor, mentor and marketer. A man who was famously in on the ground floor of Intel and Apple and who has left his fingerprints on dozens of other success stories.

I mention that he's made a lot of good bets. "And some bad ones," he says.

That's life in a place that thrives on risk-taking. A place where failure is sometimes just another step toward success. McKenna can talk about all of that. He is fascinated by valley history and by the elements that have made the valley an innovation powerhouse. And while McKenna talks about the past, it's not where he is living.

"I'm doing a little bit of everything," he says. He hasn't been out front, pushing the next new thing in recent years. But he isn't slowing down, either. He and a son run an investment company that provides angel funding. He does consulting. And he's on a few startup boards.

"It keeps your mind active," he says.

Some pushing 70 do sudoku. McKenna does startups.

Sitting with McKenna at a corner table in a joint that itself is a part of Valley lore (it was opened by Atari's Nolan Bushnell), the lunch is a reminder of how accessible history is in a place that is barely half a century old. The people who made history here are still among us, available for lunch.

McKenna is a guy who was there when Intel was just starting out and, frankly, nobody cared.

"One of the well-known magazines, I probably shouldn't mention their name, when I sent them information on one of Intel's products, they sent it back to me and asked to be taken off the mailing list," he said.

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McKenna was there when the iconic Apple logo was designed by Rob Janoff, who worked for his firm. McKenna credits artist Tom Kamifuji with inspiring the rainbow look.

"Next you had to print it on metal and maintain those colors, which Steve would be absolutely concerned about," McKenna says of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. "You know Steve wants perfection in his products."

And, yes, McKenna remembers his first meeting, in 1977, with Jobs, who favored long hair and sandals and was pitching a personal computer. McKenna suggested Jobs and partner Steve Wozniak go see venture capitalist Don Valentine.

"Don Valentine basically called me up and said, 'Why did you send me these renegades from the human race?' " In the end, it all worked out pretty well.

It must have been exciting being there at the dawn of personal computing, I say.

"You think about it as exciting now," he says, "because you see what's transpired." But at the time he thought, "Wow, that's really neat. Now what are we going to do with it?"'

It is the nature of the cutting edge, which McKenna knows is the nature of Silicon Valley.

It's a big reason the place fascinates him — even after all these years.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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