Money from Thin Air: The Story of Craig Mccaw, the Billionaire Who Invented the Cell Phone Industry and His Next Billion Dollar Idea

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From Jay Gould to John D. Rockefeller to Bill Gates, the titans who change the world have set themselves apart by seizing the high ground before anyone else even knew it existed. Gutsy, shrewd, and ruthless, they were, above all, visionaries who saw whole new industries where others saw only chaos. Today, another visionary is seizing control of the vast new world of telecommunications, an elusive entrepreneur named Craig McCaw. Money from Thin Air is the story of how he created a new industry literally from thin ...
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From Jay Gould to John D. Rockefeller to Bill Gates, the titans who change the world have set themselves apart by seizing the high ground before anyone else even knew it existed. Gutsy, shrewd, and ruthless, they were, above all, visionaries who saw whole new industries where others saw only chaos. Today, another visionary is seizing control of the vast new world of telecommunications, an elusive entrepreneur named Craig McCaw. Money from Thin Air is the story of how he created a new industry literally from thin air, and how he will do it again.

Journalist O. Casey Corr vividly portrays here for the first time how McCaw created a cellular communications empire from the disarray of his father's failed cable business and went on to sell it to AT&T in 1993 for a stunning $12.6 billion. And he shows how McCaw is now creating another new industry that could dwarf the accomplishments of Gates and Rockefeller put together, an "Internet in the Sky" that will provide high-speed data access to any point in the world. Most of all, Corr captures the heart of a new kind of executive -- mercurial, brilliant, extremely flexible, always entreprenurial -- who is changing the way business works forever.

Odd, mysterious, yet public-spirited, McCaw is a technological visionary who sees profit where others see thin air. His amazing, ongoing story is required reading for anyone wanting to understand what it takes to build an industry from scratch -- twice.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
McCaw may not have invented cellular communications, but he earned his place at the top of the industry as one of the first entrepreneurs who believed that the public would embrace mobile phones. In this lively biography, Corr, a reporter for the Seattle Times, chronicles the Seattle native's odyssey, which began after his college graduation in 1973, when he bought a small cable television company in rural Washington and built it into one of the largest cable operations in the country. As he expanded his empire, he kept a watchful eye on the fledgling cellular industry. When the government began auctioning off franchises in 1984, McCaw jumped into the frenzy. With the financing from of Michael Milken's junk bonds, he spent the next several years buying as many cellular licenses as possible. Always just a step ahead of bankruptcy, he sold his cellular company to AT&T in 1994 for $12.6 billion after it became clear that McCaw Communications didn't have the resources to compete with better-financed telecommunications giants. Corr does a solid job of capturing the Wild West spirit of the mobile phone industry's early days, when there were few rules and fewer business models. He's less successful, though, in describing McCaw's current venture, a partnership with Bill Gates and others to launch a satellite communications network. While Corr touches on McCaw's relationships with his parents and brothers, this is first and foremost a story about McCaw's obsession with creating a cellular phone powerhouse. Agent, Kris Dahl of ICM. Author tour. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Corr, a reporter with the Seattle Times and author of King: The Bullits of Seattle and Their Communications Empire, draws on interviews and published sources to produce a well-written account of Craig McCaw, the founder and CEO of McCaw Cellular Communications. As a youngster, McCaw was intelligent and introspective but suffered secretly from dyslexia. He shared his father's intuitiveness for "complex relationships and strategies," derived from their treasured games of chess. From his mother he learned how to be mindful of details and order. With these traits in hand, the enigmatic, reclusive maverick took over the reins of a family broadcasting company and turned it in a new direction. McCaw went on to create a nationwide cellular network, then sold his share to AT&T for billions at the age of 45. Not ready to retire, McCaw, who is considered a visionary with the ability to see the "big picture," is now quietly working with Bill Gates, Boeing, and Motorola to develop a new telecommunications empire that will be designed as a satellite network in order to provide fast, affordable Internet access. Corr ably blends McCaw's personal and professional stories, producing a major study of a key figure in today's business world. Highly recommended for business collections.--Bellinda Wise, Nassau Community Coll. Lib., Garden City, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From The Critics
When James Barksdale helped take Netscape public in 1995, the company was pouring resources into gaining customers, figuring profits would follow. It was a then-unprecedented and extremely successful strategy for an Internet company. It also earned Netscape's management a reputation as pioneers after a stream of startups followed suit, only to watch their market capitalizations soar.

But Barksdale was only taking a cue from his old boss, Craig McCaw, who perfected the art of getting something for nothing while running McCaw Cellular Communications, which he built from scratch into the country's biggest cellular carrier before selling it to AT&T in 1996 for $11.5 billion. McCaw's is the story of one highly leveraged deal after another - deals built on little more than vision and the airspace-spectrum licenses he got on the cheap from license holders like the Federal Communications Commission.

McCaw used his genius for seeing communications markets before they materialized to make a killing - not only in cellular, but also in cable TV, personal communications services and competitive long-distance carriers. And he's hoping for a repeat in his riskiest venture yet - the Teledesic satellite communications network set to launch later this decade.

The word "Internet" doesn't appear until almost the end of O. Casey Corr's 285-page book about McCaw, Money From Thin Air. But the lessons Net entrepreneurs can learn from McCaw are found throughout. From his willingness to take huge risks to his constant scrounging for cash to his love of fun - jets and squirt guns are two passions - McCaw epitomizes the modern Internet manager.

As a history major at Stanford University, McCaw wasn't a stellar student. But he learned from the failings of Napoleon and Hitler the importance of having an alternative plan or, as McCaw put it, "a back door." He used this and other unorthodox management practices, first to build his family's small Washington-state cable TV system into one of the biggest independents in the business, then to enter the fledgling cellular industry.

Far from a hands-on manager, McCaw sought out smart lieutenants, gave them goals and had them figure out how to proceed while he stayed behind the scenes. He preferred to have others negotiate deals, reserving the right to show up for a last-minute veto. He believed customer service was critical and made sure his companies gave subscribers kid-glove treatment - no doubt the product of many years spent working with constituent-minded government regulators who could yank a cable license if they saw fit.

As a biography, Money From Thin Air is, at best, fair. McCaw has a notoriously short attention span, and by Corr's own admission, stopped cooperating on the book after a time, leaving him to piece together the story from interviews with former and current company managers, partners and press clippings. Corr, a writer for the Seattle Times, expounds almost too much on McCaw's early childhood and his love of flying, obsession with Free Willy's Keiko the killer whale, and ugly split from his first wife, Wendy, which resulted in one of the largest divorce settlements in U.S. history.

The book is at its best when describing the birth of the cable television business and the intricacies of McCaw's business dealings. As a business strategist, McCaw has much to teach. Internet managers would do well to listen.

Business 2.0
Even though it's written as a memoir, Money from Thin Air is filled with enough insightful business strategies to keep any fledgling manager poised with a highlighter.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812926972
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/13/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 310
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

O. Casey Corr, a business and technology writer with the Seattle Times, is the author previously of KING: The Bullitts of Seattle and Their Communications Empire, and has contributed reporting and commentary to, among other publications, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Washington Post. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sally Tonkin, and their two children, Evan and Michaela.
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Read an Excerpt

More than any other individual alive, Craig McCaw embodies the incredible transformation and likely future of the telecommunications industry. He is one of the most fascinating executives in business today, an acknowledged visionary in communications, the billionaire whom even other billionaires find interesting.

This book's title refers to McCaw's long-term business focus: invisible airwaves that carry high-profit voice and data services. But it also suggests a deeper theme -- the managerial magic he brings to business. McCaw is astonishingly good at finding value where others see obstacles, doom, or just plain nothing. He seems to make money from thin air.

Describing himself as the master of the obvious, McCaw has redefined the idea of the executive. This is one guy rarely found in a suit, in the office, at a desk. More likely, he's kayaking, waterskiing, or piloting his jet high above the islands of British Columbia. When he talks about the freedom that wireless communications brings to the mobile worker, he knows it because he lives it. Contacting subordinates by voice mail, he is the virtual executive, more felt than seen. He makes money the new-fashioned way.

For the first eighty years of the twentieth century, people like McCaw had no place in telecommunications. The industry revolved around men in blue suits, white shirts, and sensible shoes who spent their lives inside a single gigantic company, AT&T, which resisted ideas that threatened its monopoly. Creative thinkers and quirky personalities worked elsewhere. Bill McGowan's MCI provided the notable exception, but the universe remained Ma Bell's until AT&T was broken up in 1984.

Today the telecomworld is in turmoil. Giant companies are vulnerable because of their entrenchment in old technology and high cost. So they merge: Bigger must be better. At a different level, start-ups tap new pools of capital and maneuver to exploit opportunities created by stumbling giants and collapsing regulation. Everyone wants a share of the profit created by huge demand from businesses and consumers tapping the Internet. Increasingly, it's a game for the nimble and the daring. The telecommunications world has come around to Craig McCaw's way of business.

McCaw made one fortune in cable TV and another in cellular telephones. Now he's building a telecommunications empire of staggering potential through a collection of companies he controls: Teledesic, a satellite partnership with Microsoft's Bill Gates that is building a global "Internet in the Sky"; NEXTLINK, a company positioning itself to rival the Baby Bells with its own vast network of fiber-optic cable, wireless transmission services, and switching systems; CablePlus, a company that provides voice service, Internet access, and TV signals through coaxial cable; and Nextel, an international wireless telephone company with an expanding role in data services.

Each company is breathtaking in its ambition, hunger for capital, and risk-taking management style. Together, they provide a glimpse of McCaw's possible goal: one company capable of providing high-speed access to any point in the world, be it a cabin in the Cascade Mountains or a remote village in Asia. On the ground, a Teledesic community could also be served by a wireless network. For the Third World, that's the telecommunications equivalent of jumping from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century. The idea has enormous social implications, and the potential for equally enormous profits.

Though this book focuses on McCaw, his story represents how the entrepreneur has moved from the fringes of the telecommunications business to the forefront. People such as McCaw, not the executives of major companies, have emerged as the visionaries who can adapt to a rapidly changing competitive landscape. They are the hunters, not the hunted. The management style and values they used to reach this point will be crucial in the future as the Internet fuels huge demand for sophisticated data services.

This book shows how McCaw's unique management style evolved by instinct and from periods of intense personal reflection and self-scrutiny. His emergence as a remarkable presence in global communications began with a crucial event in his youth.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
1 "That Man Behind the Curtain" A Family Fortune Is Lost 3
2 "A Bit of a Loose Skipper" The Elder McCaw and the Origins of an Empire 13
3 "Money Was Not the Issue" A College Boy Takes Charge 27
4 "How Can We Build Our Dreams on This?" The Small-Town Origins of a New Management Style 38
5 "There's This Crazy Kid ..." McCaw Becomes an Apostle of Debt 47
6 "Always Have a Back Door" The First Major Partner Comes on Board 61
7 "What Would Be in Their Best Interest?" McCaw Discovers a Revolutionary Telephone 81
8 "We Were Dreaming of Dick Tracy" A Fraternity of Independents Takes on Ma Bell 89
9 "I Can't Go to Bed Owing Somebody a Billion Dollars" McCaw Hangs On While Others Lose Their Nerve 103
10 "Like Negotiating with the Russians" Financing Comes from an Unlikely Ally--AT&T 113
11 "What Do You Want for a Sacramento?" A License Lottery Creates a Trading Frenzy 122
12 "You Went to Veterinarians When You Needed Brain Surgery" An Audience with Michael Milken, the King of Junk 134
13 "It's Getting Awful Lonely" McCaw Consolidates His Empire as Independents Fall 145
14 "Where Do I Sell My License?" Speculation Reaches a Climax in an FCC Free-for-all 153
15 "The Mad Scientist" His Company Goes Public, McCaw Stays Private 164
16 "Take Tarawa" A Hostile Takeover Creates a Truly National Service 178
17 "The Spirit Within Us Must Burn" The Bill Comes Due for a Leveraged Giant 193
18 "You're Marrying Off Your Daughter When She's Fourteen" AT&T Makes an Offer That Can't Be Refused 205
19 "Like Porcupines Making Love" The Billionaire Leaves Home 216
20 "Master of the Obvious" An Ambitious New Vision Takes Shape 227
21 "The Michael Jordan of Telecommunications" McCaw Strikes Gold in the Wreckage of Nextel 235
22 "The Potential to Change the World" Enter Bill Gates and Teledesic's "Internet in the Sky" 249
23 "Under the Radar" McCaw Makes Billions in a Telecommunications Backwater 269
Epilogue: The Billionaire and the Whale 279
Notes 287
Acknowledgments 293
Index 297
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2001

    Not in my life time

    Will anyone ever come up front and say, NO this cannot happen. Think for once in ther lives of someone other than therselves. Or do they just not get it? Think--how many humans in this country alone, are starving, and cannot even afford a doctor or medicene? Billions of dollars spent on going Supersonic?? Why? Oh, did I hurt someones feelings? Good. I know you hear the same thing over and over, but if it were not the truth, how come it keeps coming up,over and over. Be real, do something good for the humanities. But then you probably won't get your name in the papers, and in books. Wake up, we need to come alive and stop all this nonsence about outter space. Think INNERSPACE. PEOPLE.

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