To many people, Steve Jobs was a hero. To others, his was a controlling tyrant who stopped at nothing to get what he wanted. Whatever you believe about him and his life, one thing is certain: his vision and ability to innovate left a dent on the universe. Leaving a dent on the universe is what he set out to do when he and Steve Wozniak launched Apple Computers from their garage in Palo Alto.
He was as fascinating as he was successful. He was a man of contradictions – upon his return to Apple for his “second term”, he worked for $1 per year, but demanded a corporate jet and millions of stock options. He heaped praise on employees who he felt were worthy of his time, and lashed out cruelly at others -and depending on the day you could be on both ends of that spectrum in the same 24 hour period. The products he produced are considered to be the most elegantly designed and fashionable products on the market – but famously wore black turtlenecks, Levis jeans and running shoes every single day.
For all his quirks and character flaws, there’s a lot to be learned from Steve Jobs, the businessman and the company he left behind. Here, in the next 10 minutes, are the 6 lessons we can all learn from the biography of Steve Jobs, written by Walter Issacson.
When Steve Jobs came back to Apple for his second tenure, he found a company that had lost its way. They had 350 product lines, all of which were floundering in mediocrity. So, he took out his scalpel and started cutting, even to the point where some people would argue that he was cutting into the bone. He cut 340 product lines in total, bringing Apple’s focus down to a core of 10 product lines.
None of these 350 product lines were “bad” ideas. As Jobs pointed out in an interview, even the bad companies are good at that. But in order for any idea to succeed, you need your best people and all of the resources at your disposal ready to be deployed in the name of seeing that idea succeed.
The problem, Jobs pointed out, have the idea of focus backwards:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”
This is the type of thinking that spawned the iMac, iPod, iTunes iPhone, and the iPad. Had Apple deployed their resources across 340 other product lines, there is no doubt that this unprecedented string of successes would have been impossible. Only by cutting out the good ideas can the great ideas have a shot of succeeding.
This kind of cutting extends into the products themselves. As Jobs would tell you, his job at Apple was to play the part of the “editor”. So when the first design of the iPhone was almost ready to go into production, he had an insight that had eluded him until it was almost too late: the screen should be the focus of the iPhone, and everything else was secondary. So, with a design that probably looks a lot like other phones on the market today, Jobs told his team that they needed to start over. A heroic effort allowed them to create and produce the iPhone that millions around the world know and love today.
Focus on the most important things, and eliminate everything else.
Where does one company find the inspiration to produce products that transform entire industries overnight? Many people have asked this question, and seemingly come to the answer that Jobs and his team just seem to have this knack for understanding what people want, before they do. Jobs often quoted the famous Henry Ford line that “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
It would be easy to just leave things there and accept that Jobs, like Ford, had some superhuman powers that us mere mortals aren’t equipped with. But that wouldn’t be the full story. When you pull the curtain back, you’ll find that both Jobs and Ford almost always got their best ideas from somewhere else. This quote from a 1994 interview with Jobs will give you some insight:
“It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done. And then try to bring those things in to what you are doing. Picasso had a saying – good artists copy, great artists steal”.
Great artists steal, indeed. Ford got the idea for the assembly line while visiting a slaughterhouse in Chicago. Jobs got the idea for the design of the first Macintosh by visiting Macy’s and studying the designs of different appliances – in particular, the Cuisinart.
What’s interesting, though, is where they got their ideas from. Most companies can’t help but looking for new ideas by studying their competitors. Surely, if your competitor has designed a new feature in their product, the marketplace must want it, the argument goes. Then the rest of the marketplace does the same, until every product looks alike. Just take a stroll to your neighborhood electronic store and browse the ailes with the tablet computers (they are all black and look remarkably similar to the iPad).
But Jobs found his ideas everywhere except for in the computer industry. As it turns out, stealing proven ideas from other industries will almost always lead to a competitive advantage in your own. The main ingredient that Jobs, Ford, and all great innovators have?
So while other companies in your industry are busy stealing each other’s ideas, you should get busy stealing your own from anywhere else.
There’s no question that an Apple product is a well designed product. The fanaticism that Jobs instilled about making the product “perfect” is probably the single biggest thing that Jobs has left as a legacy for the company. This trait he stole from other influential person in his life: his father.
When he was a kid growing up in a middle class neighborhood, Jobs recalls that his father was able to build anything and had a pretty good sense of design. As Jobs was showing Issacson around his childhood home, he couldn’t help but stop and tell a story a story about the fence that his father built 50 years prior, and that was still standing. His father had told him that it was important to craft the backs of the things he would build – like cabinets and fences – even though these things were hidden from view.
Jobs carried this passion for creating great products with him throughout his life and career. He obsessed over these things so greatly that when he first became a rich man, his mansion contained almost no furniture because he wouldn’t buy anything that wasn’t perfect.
To Jobs, the product was everything. It was so important in fact that when he came back to Apple he decided that Jonathan Ives – their lead designer at the time – should report directly to him. In most companies, the design team does not have a seat at the boardroom table. The engineering team tells the design team the specs they want to create, and then they build a nice case around it. At Apple, this relationship gets reversed – the design team tells the engineering team how they need to configure their contribution to the end product.
The dominating theme of any Apple product – from the beginning of the company – is simplicity. Jobs felt that it was critical that their products are incredibly easy to use, right out of the box. In order to accomplish this, they had to master almost everything there was to master in a building a consumer electronic product – from manufacturing (so they could understand what was possible from an industrial design perspective) to the interface (so that it was intuitive to use).
There’s a saying from Oliver Wendell Holmes that applies here: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Jobs constantly forced Apple to search for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.
Near the start of his second round as Apple CEO, Jobs realized that in order to have the success he always envisioned for the company that they would need to great a platform instead of a bunch of disconnected products.
In 2001, when the technology world was imploding and the luster was coming off the personal computer, he announced his grand vision for the future of Apple: the personal computer would become the digital hub that coordinated many (if not all) of the devices in your life. It would manage your music, your pictures, your videos – everything in your digital life would revolve around the personal computer.
Jobs knew that if you treated the “digital life” as a platform and not as a bunch of separate products, you could make each device much easier to use because the computer would take over many of the tasks. This became crystal clear to him when thinking about the experience of using a camcorder. The old way was to film a bunch of stuff, and then have to sit through hours of footage with your family. The devices themselves would never be great tools for editing videos because the screens were far too small. And most people didn’t have access to video editing software, much less know how to use it.
So, by creating iMovie and making movie editing something that you and I could do with relative ease, and relegating the camera to the tasks of point and shoot, the whole was truly greater than the sum of the parts.
They of course went on to carry this thinking through to music by creating both iTunes and the iPod and literally transformed that entire industry. By creating a platform that was superior to the competition, sales of the iPod would spur on sales of iMacs and MacBooks as well.
Start thinking about what you can do to start creating a platform rather than just a product or a service.
Jobs famously had what most people who knew him called the “reality distortion field”. He had the unique ability to make people believe that anything was possible, even though after they walk away from him they know it to be impossible. This didn’t always manifest itself in positive ways. He would demand more from his teams than anybody else could reasonably expect, often pushing people over the edge.
However, as the people who have worked with him would tell you, it often worked. Before they had started Apple together, Jobs outsourced one of the jobs he was supposed to be working on at Atari to Wozniak, telling him that he needed it to be done in a few days, even though most engineers would take at least a few months. Wozniak finished it in four days, and turned in a design that was efficient and elegant beyond belief.
Jobs would turn this trick multiple times in his career, pushing people beyond the limits of what they believed they could accomplish, and producing remarkable work as a result.
Ignoring reality is fine when you are attempting to get people to see beyond their limits. However, there is a dark side to the reality distortion field, and Jobs met his match when he was diagnosed with cancer. Originally ignoring it and believing he could treat it with a modified diet, he waited far too long to have an operation that could have saved his life.
But one thing is for sure – there are limits that we all place on ourselves that we would be better off ignoring – if we want to do something great with our lives, that is.
Owning the entire customer experience is an issue that has gotten Jobs into hot water over the years. Because Jobs had a fanatical attention to detail and a product that he believed was superior to the competition, we was wary of relinquishing control of the customer experience in any way. In computer terms, this drove him to create “closed system” where Apple controlled everything from beginning to end.
They not only controlled things like who got their apps approved in the Apple apps store, they went as far as making making special screws for their devices so that consumers wouldn’t be able to take the machine apart and “hack” it. This is in direct opposition to other companies like Microsoft and Google who build on “open” platforms that allow for much more flexibility.
This ethos led Jobs to take one of the biggest leaps of his career – to build the Apple stores. At the time, everybody thought this was a boneheaded idea, including and especially the press. Jobs argued that they couldn’t let their products be sold in large box stores by employees who didn’t know the myriad of reasons why an Apple product was superior to everything else on the shelf. It turns out that he was right. They built the stores, and aside from being architectural marvels and a delight to shop in, they run the most revenue per square foot of any retailer in the world.
Most other people would have just accepted that other retailers had to sell their products. However, by taking ownership of every single step of the customer experience, Jobs made sure that his customers would be absolutely delighted at all times.
It leads us to ask a question that every business should be asking – how much of our customers’ experience do we truly own? And how much should we own?
Steve Jobs was a remarkable man, a visionary product designer, and one of the best CEOs of all time. You might not want to mimic his fashion or his sometimes nasty disposition, but you will want to take some cues about his attention to detail and curiosity about the way the world works.