Monday, October 31, 2011
For those of us who study entrepreneurship, there are many who are put on pedestals as people who have changed the World around them. Josiah Wedgwood, Edwin Land, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Richard Branson and Bill Gates are all individuals who made a difference to specific industry but is there anyone who, in such a comparatively short lifetime, did more than Steve Jobs to change the way we work, play and communicate with each other?
Let’s look at the evidence.
In the 1970s, he created the Apple II, the World’s first personal computer, with his best friend Steve Wosniak. He then went onto to develop the Macintosh, which began the home computer revolution and created the desktop publishing industry.
When he left Apple after a management dispute, he joined forces with John Lassiter at Pixar to create a whole new phenomenon of digital animation through films such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo.
Then when he returned to Apple eleven years after his departure, he not only developed the new generation of computers, such as the iMac, but revolutionised the information and communications industry through a range of innovative products such as the iPhone, which turned mobile phone into music, photography, video, email and web devices; the iPod, which changed the way we listen to music; and the iPad, which created the first real platform for digital newspapers, magazines, books and videos.
He also established iTunes, which many have suggested rescued the music industry from what was then a spiral of decline. In promoting the development of applications for his devices, he created a whole new generation of content creating entrepreneurs.
Most importantly, Apple itself became a byword for a new type of business, a company that was a trailblazer for the those that followed Jobs in the 21st century such as Google, Twitter and Facebook. The life of Steve Jobs is an amazing story, which is why I was delighted to buy the new biography of Jobs by Walter Isaacson earlier this week.
It is an incredible story, more so for the fact that Steve Jobs co-operated fully with the author up to a few weeks before his death and yet was not interested in reading the final version. The result is not only a detailed picture of an incredibly complex individual but a history of entire industries that spawned up around him and his business over the last thirty five years.
Whilst it is enjoyable to read about the triumphant return of Steve Jobs to Apple in 1996, the sections I appreciated the most are the early history of Apple and the challenges he faced in getting the business off the ground. For example, how he struggled to get finance from banks to develop the first Apple computer, eventually relying on a loan from his father to buy the parts to get the business off the ground.
Of course, as with the apocryphal tales of those record company executives who turned down the Beatles, there are also examples of experienced executives who refused to support the new company. One of these was Nolan Bushnell, founder of the games company Atari who first employed Jobs as a young engineer. According to the book, Steve Jobs asked the Atari chief whether he would put in $50,000 for a third of the company. As Bushnell is quoted “I was so smart, I said no. It’s kind of fun to think about that, when I am not crying”.
There are also instances where Steve Jobs goes against the wisdom of what was then conventional business thinking. For example, the adage of ‘never compromise’ when it came to the product, a philosophy that would make and nearly break Apple during the early years as his quest for perfection nearly ruined the business. Or on being asked back in 1982 whether he thought Apple should do some market research to see what customers wanted and answering no because “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them’, as the consumer hysteria over both the iPad and the iPhone has shown in recent years.
However, what the book emphasises time and time again is Jobs’ incredible ability to see beyond his own narrow sphere and the foresight, from the early days of Apple, in marrying the worlds of humanities and science to create products that were world class in both design and technology.
Steve Jobs’ life is a story that is worth reading and this book captures perfectly the life and soul of the unique individual. He could be a cruel and cold leader, often humiliating people publicly if he didn’t like their work, and admitting in his final interviews that he was harder on people in his company that he needed to be. Yet through sheer drive and willpower, he created a business where, as the book states, “imagination was nurtured, applied and executed in ways so creative that it became the most valuable company on the planet”.
In fact, the real lesson for entrepreneurs, according to Jobs, is that most are “unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That’s how you make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now.”
And how should Steve Jobs be remembered?
To me, it is Apple’s ‘Think Differently’ commercial in 1997, which had the strapline “that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the World are the ones who do”.
That statement, more than any other, is a fitting epitaph for Steve Jobs - entrepreneur, genius and a man who changed our lives forever.