Why Apple’s Steve Jobs will remain a business hero
Nearly 30 years ago, on 22 January 1984, perhaps the most famous TV ad of all time was screened.
It was of course Apple’s “Big Brother” 60-second movie-quality commercial (incidentally made in Britain by a Briton). Derived from George Orwell’s novel “1984,” it was shown only once on prime-time American TV to help introduce the new Macintosh home computer. Three weeks after the ad was aired, I attended a talk given by John Sculley in the Stanford Business School auditorium. Sculley had been appointed as Apple’s CEO less than a year previously. Sculley replayed the ad on a huge screen. The Stanford crowd roared their approval. At the end of his talk, he received a standing ovation. What I did not know at the time was that the board of Apple had opposed the ad and did not want to air it. It was of course Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs who, against the views of his entire board, pushed through the commercial and got it broadcast. The following year Sculley fired Jobs from Apple. Apple went into a period of mixed fortunes. Sculley departed in 1994. It was only Steve Jobs’ return to the company in 1996 that set Apple on the path to success that has made it one of the world’s most valuable companies. Just like the athlete featured in the TV ad, Jobs was the rebel taking on the status quo. Sculley, as it turned out, did not possess Jobs’ range of skills. Jobs was indeed the core of Apple. Steve Jobs has died at the tragically young age of 56. As one blogger remarked, who knows what Jobs would have created had he lived another 30 years? Often obituaries resort to hyperbole, the emotion of the moment overshadowing rational judgement. In Jobs’ case, even hyperbole does not do him justice. He was the greatest business man of my generation, by any measure, and certainly one of the greatest in history. Technology has a limited shelf life. So it is unlikely that in a few centuries Jobs will be remembered in the same way as other creative geniuses like Shakespeare and Mozart. But, for today’s entrepreneurs, the fact that his creations will not endure should not detract from his achievement at Apple (as well as at NeXT and Pixar). This qualifies him as a worthy member of the most select pantheon of creative geniuses. His legacy is both a legend and an inspiration for entrepreneurs. So, for anyone managing their own business, the lessons from Jobs’ life and work are clear: He combined brilliantly the creative and the technical. In his 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford, he highlighted the importance of his love and understanding of calligraphy in his success. How many programmers or technology CEOs would have mentioned calligraphy, a visual art dating back thousands of years? Probably not Bill Gates! He was not afraid of failure. More than any other entrepreneur, he understood the importance of IKEA’s founder Ingvar Kamprad’s dictum “It is only while sleeping one makes no mistakes”. Jobs was energised by his dismissal from Apple. “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Do not lose heart if you have not had a big title at a big company. As it turned out, Jobs was the business genius, not Sculley the “suit” whom Apple had brought in from Pepsico. Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google, demonstrate conclusively how founders, with no big company experience at all, can take a garage operation and transform it into a multi-billion dollar business. Neither business nor technology is the preserve of 20-somethings. Jobs was a genius throughout his life but 60% of Apple’s sales are from products launched in the last four years. Jobs was even more creative in his 50s than in his 20s. And don’t worry about paper qualifications. Jobs dropped out of Reed College after one semester. David Soskin is the co-founder of Howzat Media LLP and sits on the boards of several internet companies, including Cheapflights Media, of which he was CEO from 2000 to 2008. His book Net Profit has been published by John Wiley & Sons.