Friday, October 07, 2011

Four Business Lessons from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs on his 1966 BMW. ( From National Geographic 1982)

By Gaurav Parab

The untimely passing away of Steve Jobs united dreamers and doers in grief. As heaven opened its gate to an user experience revolution, lesser mortals are left with the tricky question about his legacy.

It is both easy and difficult to answer. The easy route, taken by many commentators is he made beautiful devices, made computers portable, changed the way phones felt and put the user in the center of the technology revolution.

I have a problem with that.

Such an ill defined legacy stands the danger of being wiped the next time a great product comes along. Truth be told, Jobs did not invent stuff. Reducing his genius merely to the brilliance of Apple products reduces it to their shelf life.

Carnegie is not remembered for the mountains of steel, but for the audacity of  his vision and his philanthropy. Ford is not know for the Model T, he is known for the concepts he introduced. Ray Kroc is not only burgers, he stands for changing the way we eat. Walt Disney is happiness, much like Tom Watson changed the way businesses were run. Edison? Well Edison is everything from scientist to salesman. And it is with these titans that Steve Jobs name deserves to be spoken. To define his legacy, we will have to take the difficult route. We will have to dig behind the glitzy Mac World Presentation and understand what his actions stood for.

Whether it is the young dreamer in a studio, or a number crunching geek in his cubicle, the life and times of Jobs are full of lessons for everyone. His legacy stands in these lessons.

Here is my take. And in keeping with his philosophy, I will keep it short and simple.

1) Innovation Has to Come From The Top

Innovation is a nice buzzword. It makes for good ad copy with Green, CSR and Sustainability. It is also a bitter pill to swallow. It involves heavy investments and vague returns. When CEO terms are increasingly getting shorter, and shareholders are to be given orgasmic happiness every quarter - what do companies do? Do they have the maneuverability to innovate?

So they do the next best thing. Act like they are innovative, instead of acting on innovation. They create new Business units 'exclusively' for innovation. They call is something fancy as a Future Lab. The new unit is designed to fill an entire section in the annual report. 

The problem with renaming the R&D of yesterday, to Innovation Unit of today is when a breakthrough happens- it is looked from the prism of marketability. Top leadership truly gets involved too late in the cycle. They don't push the innovation through. They don't give their inputs. Death is it getting reduced to a concept.

Jobs and Apple considered thousands of ideas meticulously, before believing in one - and then they would drop everything else.

Management should manage a company. True leadership should be less administration, more taking chances, looking into the future, and getting involved in the detail. Micro managing is not the demon every one paints it to be. A company's leadership should leave the operations to the operations and invest their reputation, belief and time in things that can change the world.

Over his career, and especially during his comeback, he taught how to be nimble like an Apple when you are the size of a Jackfruit. His trick was to take ownership. To sink or sail with his babies.

In the fast moving technology industry where large corporations spawned out of dormitories and garages, end up becoming the very monster they replaced - Apple always seemed to be a young company. Retaining the DNA of a garage start up where the founder took charge of both the lab and the board room.

2) Its Ok to be Number 2

Apple under Steve Jobs was always the underdog. 90 percent of the world was on to PCs. His way or the highway never worked as far as pure sales numbers were concerned.You would expect a lesser man to take the easy way out and make the quick buck. He could have opened Mac to other software.

But Jobs believed in a paradigm. He did not want the entire pie, he wanted to own a particular segment. It was all right if only the artists, writers, painters, and geeks bought the Mac as long as they were ready to pay that extra buck. The housewife and the investment banker could sleep with the PC, as far as he was concerned. It is difficult to imagine the courage it took to stick to a particular line of thought. His success was built on leadership in thought, and not necessarily in the market place.

3) Burn All Business Models for One Gut Feeling

If you are a leader, burn all the models, charts, and templates that interrupt with your gut feel. If Jobs had applied the Porter Model to the mobile phone industry, he would have never introduced the iPhone. The incumbents were too big and experienced, competition was fierce, and customers demanded value for money. Yet, he still sneaked it. And destroyed everyone else.

For his products, he fiercely held on to the distribution channel even at the cost of sales. The fanboys never abandoned him.

At Pixar, he invested his own money and changed not one but two industries forever in the same lifetime.

In most of his business decisions, he took the difficult route. While numbers help to take better informed decisions, better informed decisions do not always work out. He applied sixth sense to science. And the best part is he was honest about stating everything makes sense in hindsight.

4) Don't Hire Geniuses, Inspire Them

Steve Jobs' marketing took sales out of the stratosphere, but it was the worlds best supply chain set up by Tim Cook that delivered Apple its great margins.  Then there is Jonathan Ive, the Chief Designer behind every Apple product from 1996 onwards.

Even at Pixar, he was able to inspire a bunch of scientists to create billion dollar Hollywood franchises.


Da Vinchi reborn, the boss from hell, the ultimate elevator pitchman, comeback kid, visionary and Geek god.

Steve Jobs RIP. Lesser men are missed. Your absence will be felt.

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nightflier said...

thanks for putting this into your words. This feels very personal.

Anshuman said...

Probing Observations! Well written!

Anshuman said...

Probing Observations! Well written!

Aravind Ganesan said...

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the ocassion. It is hard to objectively put down the reasons for it. Good work!

Aditya said...

Nice article...can feel the frustration about the so called innovatie copmanies :)