BLOG STARTUPS, VENTURE AND THE TECH BUSINESS

March 9 2012
by Thanasis Delistathis

Takeaways from Jobs’ biography

I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.  It was a fascinating retrospective of Jobs the business person, but also Steve Jobs the individual.  I already knew a lot about his role in starting Apple and eventually saving the company, but very few things about his personal life and character.

Visionaries that drive change can be hard to work with; but so what? Bet on them.

He was clearly a visionary that could envision new markets before others and could come up with devices that we love but had no idea we needed.  But he was also an individual with many character flaws: a narcissistic ego, lacking empathy, with almost complete disregard for others’ feelings, mercurial and unpredictable personality, even while we sense a sensitive soul that has a passion for life with a meaning.  How do we reconcile a hero to many consumers who changed their lives with the character flaws of Jobs the individual?

We all want our heros to also be moral and pure and flawless and angelic.  The reality is that most of the times they are not.  And sometimes in business it takes someone with an obsessive personality intent on realizing a singular vision to change the world. As venture investors, this is something we deal with all the time.  We meet brilliant people who sometimes lack the social graces that might ingratiate them to others.  Yet the reality is that sometimes you need people like that to push a vision to reality.  Brilliant people can sometimes be mercurial.

There is always a debate in our business: are you betting on the jockey or the horse.  Is it the market and the idea you believe in or is it a bet on the founder who will make it happen?  In reality it is a little bit of both, but our team believes that ultimately it is a bet on people, especially at the early stage.  The trick is to figure out who has the personality and drive to make it happen.  Give him the straps and hold on for the ride.

Figuring out what it takes is hard though.  I am sure the board at Apple wrestled hard with the decision to back Sculley instead of Jobs in the mid-eighties, a decision that ultimately pushed Jobs out of the company.  Would Jobs have been ready to take the reign and make Apple super-successful in the mid-eighties?  Who knows?  The biography hints, however, that leaving Apple helped him mature.  I would contend that the initial failure of Next and success of Pixar trained him to be a better manager.

Details matter

At the same time, Jobs was not just a visionary.  He was someone who could execute.  He knew how to recruit A players and knew the importance of attention to detail.  I learned a lot from that.  I would bet he paid more attention to details (some of them seemingly insignificant) that any other CEO in history.  But he understood, something that Mike Markkula (the first marketing exec at Apple) had taught him.  The product has to “impute” its qualities to the consumer.  The details are important; they are the signals that tell a story to the consumer: about how well the product was built.  Do you remember opening the iphone box?  Even the box is high quality paper.  It signals that it contains something valuable.

Focus and simplicity

Another thing that stood out is Jobs’ ability to focus the company on doing a few things well.  When he got back to running Apple in the late ’90s he cut hundreds of projects and focused the company on doing a handful or products really well (“insanely great”).  He also focused intently on making the products simpler to use?  Why do you think there is almost no manuals for the products Apple sells?  This allowed the company to focus its resources on executing on the things that matter to the consumer.

Ohh, and one more thing… 

He had an amazing ability to think uninhibited by commonly accepted business conventions or norms and do what he thought made sense for the consumer.  Everybody thought Apple was crazy to enter the competitive cell phone market yet now takes 75% of all mobile phone industry profits.  Everyone thought Apple was crazy to enter the retail market by opening the Apple stores, yet now Apple stores post the highest retail sales number per square foot than any other stores, ahead of Tiffany’s.  Jobs is in the same league as Alfred Sloan in driving business decisions based on what best makes sense to serve the customer.

COMMENTS

March 13 2012
by Dave Sandrowitz

I too recently finished the biography of Jobs. I knew a fair amount about his personal and professional life, but found the insights of those who were close to him to be particularly enlightening. Reading what Lee Clow, Mike Markkula, and Jony Ive think and feel about Jobs was much more interesting that simply reading an author’s conjectures on loss and one man’s lingering obsessions due to being adopted.

What I find really amazing about Jobs, at least his track record, is that so many continued to discount his vision despite all of his success over the years. Launching Apple, creating the Mac, Pixar, the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad…until recently, pundits were always quick to dismiss his latest creation. In Jobs’s case, even when we’ve all seen what the jockey can do, so many were quick to telling us all that his horse was lame before the race even started.

All in all, I don’t think the book or biography is particularly instructive despite the amount of enjoyment most readers will probably get from reading it. Jobs was a fluke, a one-of-a-kind who won’t come around again, and we can do little more than respect and admire him for the profoundly unique person he was. When I hear people reference Jobs in attempts to justify their own actions or behaviors, I am reminded of Lloyd Bentsen’s JFK-based retort to Dan Quayle.

One last note here. Walter Isaacson is one of best biographers working today. I loved his books on Franklin and Einstein (highly recommend both) and was not the least bit disappointed in his efforts this time around either.

Top of the page