By now, many know the legend of Eric Schmidt—how, back in 2001, Google’s young co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, brought him into the company in its critical early years to be “the adult in the room” and instill discipline in their unruly, fast-growing start-up.
The boys—28 and 27 years old at the time—had first hoped Steve Jobs might take the gig. Not to be. Later they were introduced to Schmidt, a seemingly mild-mannered 46-year-old in a baggy suit who was C.E.O. of Novell, a software company that was losing ground to Microsoft. On the surface the three didn’t seem to have much in common. Until, that is, the conversation turned to Burning Man, the quasi-apocalyptic, sometimes druggy, often free-swinging sex-fest in the Nevada desert, of which Sergey and Larry were big, big fans.
“So am I!,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt was the third candidate to be offered the job, and the first one to say yes. His compensation that first year was $250,000, plus a bonus of $300,000, but that all paled in comparison to the 14.4 million Google shares—6 percent of the company—he also received.
By many metrics, Schmidt succeeded wildly. Marissa Mayer, an early Google employee who later was C.E.O. of Yahoo, tells me, “Eric was able to see around corners in ways that nobody else could. Including the founders.” He got the company focused on a mission, and in doing so helped it to become the behemoth it is—mostly by convincing Page and Brin to turn the search engine into a gigantic advertising machine.
“Eric kept us laser-focused on how to build the best in what actually mattered,” Mayer says.
He also guided it to its landmark I.P.O., in 2004, which raised $1.9 billion. It was a deal that made the founders spectacularly wealthy, as it did Schmidt. (Since then, the stock is up some 4,400 percent. Google’s ad revenue in the first quarter of 2021 was nearly $45 billion, and the company is now the fifth most valuable in the world.)
Still, in Silicon Valley, Schmidt is a bit of an outlier. Always has been. And unlike many of the top names on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index—Bezos ($195 billion); Musk ($171 billion); Gates ($146 billion); Zuckerberg ($112 billion); Page and Brin ($105 billion), all of whom built businesses from their own ideas—Schmidt (No. 74, with a worth of $24 billion) has created exactly … nothing.
In other words, Schmidt got rich the old-fashioned way. He is one of the few people on the Bloomberg list who became hyper-wealthy not by what he made but by the moves he made—specifically, by latching onto the right people at the right time and then making what they made better.
Yet while Brin and Page hired Schmidt to be the adult in the room, across the years he has gained a reputation for being just about anything but—at least when it comes to social mores and women who are not his wife. These days, thanks to Jeff Bezos’s and Bill Gates’s dramatic busts from their respective first wives, MacKenzie and Melinda, it might appear that tech dudes are going through something of a market re-alignment, at least with their significant others.
But for all the drama surrounding Bill and Jeff, these two seem positively, well, adult next to Schmidt. Technically, the wayward former Google C.E.O. is still married to Wendy Schmidt—but he enjoys the benefits of a marriage that is, as it were, a very open and, at times, a very awkward secret.
As one person who has spent time with Brin and Page tells me, “Eric was a serial, very evident philanderer…. And I know that it drove a lot of people crazy around Google, not just Larry and Sergey. They just basically didn’t like him.” Which makes you wonder why Brin and Page turned a blind eye to Schmidt’s behavior for so long, and if his antics ultimately made him a corporate liability they had to defease. (Google did not respond to requests for comment.)