As you can tell, it took me a while to decide whether or not to write something about Steve Jobs. At first, I thought it was perhaps a little cliché. After all, everyone is writing about Steve right now (yes, we’re on a first-name basis) – my words would simply get lost in the crowd. But then again, how could I not? Steve is one of America’s most celebrated modern visionaries – and the footprint he left will forever mark the development of technology, culture, business and much more. And on a much more personal note, he is one of the most inspirational people I have ever discovered.
An excellent King of France.
When I first heard of his death via an email sent to me by a friend who works at Trulia, I didn’t actually know that much about Steve (shock!). Sure, I knew he had dropped out of college, started Apple Computers in a Silicon Valley garage with Steve Wozniak, been fired and made a successful comeback at Apple, contributed to the success of Pixar, and revolutionized personal computing with some truly outstanding products – but that was more or less it. As I started to read the articles on his life that flooded various magazines and the net, I discovered his incredible philosophy, way of living and work ethic that made him loved and hated by so many. He was a moody artist, a near-delusional inventor with conviction and charisma, who Jef Raskin thought would make “an excellent King of France.” (Honestly, I’m not much of a Monarchist but how could I not admire this man? J)
Here’s to the misfits.
Today, many of us think of Steve Jobs as a hero. But looking back over his lifetime, there were many instances where he could appear as anything but. He was a college drop out (no, not Harvard or Stanford – but Reed College) who almost gave up computers in the early days for a life of contemplation in Japan. Wtf? He also eventually managed to get fired from his own company, à la Jerry Yang. As a teenager, he was a contrarian who lived by his own rules, in a John Lennon type of way – amusing himself with strange fruit diets, not bathing and refusing to wear shoes. He read Shakespeare, listened to Bob Dylan, experimented with drugs and sleep deprivation. But despite everything, he was motivated. And he knew how to get what he wanted. Even as a drop out, he would audit classes that interested him and lived off of the money that he made by collecting bottles (now that is some serious bootstrapping).
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water?”
If there was one thing Steve had in order, it was his priorities. Despite his total lack of professional experience and disregard for personal hygiene during his early post-college life, he somehow managed to convince someone at Atari to hire him. He even convinced Steve Wozniak to work on projects with him for free by feeding his video-game addiction through Atari. He knew how to rub people the wrong and the right way – whether storming out of a board meeting in reaction to a comment from investor Ross Perot or recruiting Pepsi’s John Sculley with the famous line “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” He never said: “sell computers” – he said “change the world.”
Putting the sex in technology.
In 1988, Ross Perot introduced him to the King of Spain and apparently Steve managed to sell him a computer (ha!). But even if Steve new how to sell he wasn’t a salesman. When he returned to Apple in 1997, he criticized the company’s products because “there (was) no sex in them anymore.” He wanted his products to be something that would sell themselves: an accessible luxury item, a status symbol, an object of desire– like Chanel perfume or a Louis Vuitton handbag. Everyone knows sex sells. So Steve took geekery and made it hot. iMac? iPod? iPhone? iPad? iWant.
Like many wannabe entrepreneurs, Steve wasn’t an engineer. And that was his strength. Instead of losing himself in the complexity of various features and functions, he obsessed with the simplicity of design and user experience. He was taking what already existed and making it better. During his days at NeXT, Ross Perot had once pissed him off by telling him that he needed to listen more to consumers. But the message seems to have stuck regardless. In Bloomberg Businessweek, DFJ’s Steve Jurvetson describes how Steve hated the keyboard and once made a statement by prying off the useless F1 and F2 keys with his car keys. He was a detail-obsessed micro-manager who wanted to control everything from A to Z. But man, did it pay off. As a result, Apple wasn’t selling products – it was selling an entire lifestyle.
Something like Picasso.
Apple made a cultural impact because it understood culture. It communicated with people on a different level than other technology companies – which often seem disconnected from reality. Apple campaigns featured the famous faces of Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King, Jr. and referenced George Orwell (see 1984 commercial below). The Apple story itself reads like a dramatic Shakespearian play. If there were to be a Picasso of tech, well, this wouldn’t be too far.
The richest man in the cemetery.
Steve’s net worth prior to his death was an estimated $7 billion – yet his annual salary since returning to Apple in 1997 never passed $1. Still, he owned quite a bit of Apple shares – which, since its IPO in 1980, has jumped from $22 to $378.25 a share. Nonetheless, he said he didn’t care about being the richest man in the cemetery but doing something he could be proud of.
There is a little Steve Jobs in all of us.
No, I didn’t cry the day that I heard that he died. And while I love Apple products, I’m not a die-hard Apple fan – I’ve only owned 3 Apple products my entire life: a Macbook Pro, iPhone and iPod Nano – two of which I purchased more for work than anything else. It wasn’t until after I’d read enough about him that it actually hit me to what extent the world had lost a truly incredible human being. There are many things to be learned from Steve – yet to me, his determination stands out more than anything else. If my vision of Steve seems warped, I can always blame it on the journalists – who are crafting his legacy as we speak (I only hope that other countries celebrate their star innovators and business heroes in the same way – France, I’m looking at you). Regardless, his story is one of the most inspirational I have ever encountered (and I am surrounded by a lot of inspirational people and stories, as you can imagine). If only I had gotten to meet him while he was alive…
Stanford campus, 1986.
My Dad tells this funny story – I have no memory of it but I like to think that it’s true. It’s 1986 – 6 years after Apple went public. My Dad and I are on Stanford campus and he has to use the restroom. Rather than taking me – a toddler at the time –with him, he asks a stranger to watch me for a few minutes. That stranger is Steve Jobs.