10 Things I Learned about Business from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs at Stanford © by Keng Susumpow

Steve Jobs’ recent resignation from Apple had a lot of people reminiscing about his contributions to the tech world and beyond. This got me thinking about all the things that I’ve learned about business from Apple and Steve Jobs, especially in the past decade.

1. It is ok to fail.

It’s how you pick yourself up, and what you learn from your experiences that matter. While we have all heard of Apple’s many iSuccesses, there were many failures early on for both Jobs and Apple. Some of Apple’s early products, like the Apple III and the Apple Lisa had to be canceled after not meeting sales expectations. That didn’t stop them from continuing on however.

Of course Steve Jobs’ biggest failure was being forced to resign in 1985, from the company he founded. How would you react to such a situation?

Jobs reacted by starting a new computer company – NeXT, that he would later sell back to Apple for a huge sum.  He also purchased a small company named Pixar, that  isn’t so small anymore. Not bad for a failure!

2. Surround yourself with really good people.

While Steve Jobs deserves a lot of the credit for founding Apple, and building its resurgence, he deserves equal credit for finding and associating himself with the right people. Starting with Steve Wozniak who cofounded Apple with Steve Jobs, to Jonathan Ive, who has led Apple’s strong design, and new CEO Tim Cook, who has been instrumental in Apple’s logistics. You are only as good as the team around you.

3. Get inspiration from outside your circles.

A famous Steve Jobs anecdote recalls how he attended a calligraphy class in college, which later inspired the fonts that made up the Mac OS. A lot of inspiration in the tech world comes from taking events from daily life and finding ways to incorporate them online. Gamification is another concept that takes daily, mundane tasks and makes them more interesting by adding game life elements to them.

What inspiration have you drawn from life, that you have adapted into your business?

4. Think Different.

Apple’s famous Think Different commercial from the late 90s wasn’t just a marketing ploy. It represents a philosophy that the whole company believes in. In 1997, Steve Jobs ended a speech by saying:

You always had to be a little different to buy an Apple computer.  When we shipped the Apple II, you had to think differently about computers.  Computers were these things you saw in movies, they occupied giant rooms.  They weren’t these things you had on your desktop.  You had to think differently because there wasn’t any software at the beginning…  I think you had to think differently when you bought a Mac.  It was a totally different computer, worked in a totally different way and used a totally different part of your brain… I think you still have to think differently to buy an Apple computer.  And I think the people who do buy them do think differently. They are the creative spirits in the world.  They are the people who are not just out to get a job done, they are out to change the world and they are out to change the world using whatever great tools they can get.  And we make tools for those kinds of people.

While Microsoft and Google have preferred to license their OS to others in order to gain market share, Apple has preferred a closed system, where they control both the hardware and the software.

While Android phones market themselves to power users who demand a lot of features, Apple focuses on its simplicity in doing a few things right.

When PC manufacturers raced to release low end netbooks, Apple chose a different route.

The results of this approach have been telling. While sales in the PC industry have stalled, Mac sales have soared. While major retail companies are closing their stores, Apple store sales have never been higher. And while competing stocks have lagged, Apple’s stock continues to reach new highs.

5. Pay attention to detail and design.

Many stories have been told recently of Jobs’ attention to detail.  While Apple products are traditionally more expensive than its competitors, this hasn’t stopped fans from lining up for each new product launch. Apple product satisfaction ratings consistently lead the industry.

This level of detail isn’t just limited to the products, but to its stores as well.

The end result is a consistent brand message that consumers are willing to pay for.

6. Learn to say no.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, one of his first acts of business was to reduce the number of products Apple sold from 350 to a mere 10. Android phones are known for having more features and options than the iPhone. Yet Apple prefers to keep things simple.  According to Steve Jobs,

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.

Newer versions of Apple products have been famous for what they don’t have in addition to what they do have. The iMac was famous for not having a floppy drive. Apple’s Macbook Air laptops don’t have optical drives or ethernet ports. And of course iPhones don’t have keyboards.

(Incidentally, this blog post was initially titled “13 Things I learned About Business from Steve Jobs”, however I found a way to say no to 3 points!)

7. Competition doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

Through the early 90s, Apple and Microsoft were bitter enemies, engaged in high profile lawsuits. Yet in 1997, Steve Jobs negotiated a significant investment in Apple from Microsoft. In response to critics of the deal, Jobs said:

We have to let go of the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft needs to lose.

Since then, although Microsoft and Apple continue to compete with each on several fronts including desktop and mobile operating systems, as well as browsing software, they have teamed up as allies on occasion, where it benefits them.

8. Emotion is a powerful tool.

Apple knows how to bottle up emotion and sell it. Instead of touting features and specifications, Apple ads prefer to focus on the emotion of users.

The lure of a new Apple store also instills its own emotion, which results in all kinds of frenzy during product launches.

9. Be an effective communicator.

Steve Jobs’ keynote speeches are legendary. They are not just speeches, they are events. He is a master presenter and is able to create massive buzz for new products, even before they are launched. Anytime a keynote is announced, there is abundant speculation from tech media on what may be announced.

How much would Apple competitors be willing to pay to get this type of publicity for their own product launches?

10. Trust your intuition.

In separate commencement speeches, both former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and current Apple CEO Tim Cook talk about trusting your intuition.  Jobs famously made the decision to drop out of college. At the time, he wondered if he was doing the right thing, but he followed his gut, and we know how that turned out.

In Tim Cook’s speech, he talked about his decision to leave Compaq when it was the world’s top PC maker, and join Apple, who was losing money at the time. All the advice he was given suggested that staying at Compaq would be a better decision, yet he too trusted his intuition and took the job at Apple. In retrospect, that too was a pretty good move for him.

My Own Apple Experience

My first experience with Apple products began in 2006 when I purchased my first iPod. I was enamored by all the podcasts that were available on iTunes for free. I was especially interested in the ones teaching languages. That prompted me to start my first business later that year – Chinese Learn Online. Over 80% of the initial traffic to the site came from iTunes.

A couple of years later, I purchased my first iPhone. That introduced me to the app store and how mobile apps could be a part of my business. Later that year, I released my first app. Since then, I’ve released several additional apps that form a significant part of my revenue. I’m now working on my first iPad app.

Needless to say, I’ve been a big fan of Apple ever since. They make great products that people love, while allowing individuals like me to build our businesses around. Thanks Steve!

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