Many thousands of words have been written about Steve Jobs as a visionary and titan during the past week. They are well deserved. Today however, I’m looking in on his life as an inspiring story for the small business owners of today and tomorrow.
Like many other people, I was snared by the TV commercial in the 1984 Superbowl which introduced the Apple Macintosh, the computer that radically changed the playing field in the early days of personal computer development. That model which became the company’s signature followed Apple’s Lisa which was a flop. We can chuckle now over its 9-inch screen and 120,000 bytes of memory! In a separate live event that year, there was a neatly dressed young man with a bow tie touting the machine as being “insanely great.” That was the pre turtleneck and jeans Steve Jobs. So, from the beginning, the creator and the creation were a single bonded brand. It is an exceptional business achievement if people think of you when they see the product and the product when they see you.
Neither Steve Jobs nor his business partner Steve Wozniak was an inventor as such. For example, the windows based computer interface was invented by some big brain folks at Xerox in the 1970s. The Alto computer as it was called had menus, icons, graphics and the mouse, things that enabled non geeks like me to use a computer. Xerox didn’t see potential in the Alto, but Jobs and his associates were excited by what they saw in the big company’s Palo Alto laboratories. They liked it so much that they adopted the graphical interface and mouse approach. It is a fabulous strategy for a small business to figure out how to package and market something in a way that eluded its actual creators. Trust funds all over the world are bulging with dollars earned from this approach!
A part of the Steve Jobs story that many business founders can identify with is the chapter when in 1985 he was exiled from the house he’d played an important part in building. No doubt that it was a heavy blow to be dropped like a bad circuit board. Earlier, John Sculley had been encouraged by Jobs to leave Pepsi-Cola to become president of Apple with the famous pitch “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?” Soon a power struggle developed between Jobs and Sculley. The board of directors (many of whom represented venture capital) believed that Steve was behaving badly in several ways and decided to hit the escape key. The lesson is that investor’s money doesn’t just talk, sometimes it screams. Be very careful about the terms on which you accept investment money. The dollars always love the idea and a profitable exit strategy more than they love you.
Though I own an iPod and an iPad, (with an Apple Newton in the junk drawer) the computers in my life are PCs. It is fascinating to gaze in on the cult like following that Jobs established with his own story and that of his products. It is the dream of most business owners to have the kind of pricing power that Apple has enjoyed with their computers in most instances costing substantially more than their PC equivalents. Mercedes Benz used to get away with pricing their cars based on cost plus the desired markup until Lexus changed all that back in the early nineties. Now most car manufacturers, computer makers design and engineer to hit a specific price point. Apple is still able to play their own pricing game with people getting out of bed at midnight to get in line for a new product release. That sounds like the prayer of any business owner from very small to mega large.
I’ve long had great regard and admiration for the late Mr. Jobs. He was on my personal list of people to meet. Yes, he was a very smart person who eventually became very wealthy from what began as a garage based small business. But my greatest admiration comes from the fact that until the end, he was a risk taker who developed the confidence to march to the beat of his own drummer. The iPod, iPhone and iPad devices rode the crest of the biggest digital era wave in ways that perhaps even he didn’t imagine. They earned him a place in the most select pantheon of business people. His spirit will receive one of the biggest compliments any organization can offer when on a daily basis someone at Apple ponders, “What would Steve do?”