The real lesson of Steve Jobs’ career
A recent Wired magazine cover story (here) asks, “Do you really want to be like Steve Jobs?” In it, the author proposes two types of entrepreneurs. First are the “acolytes,” workaholics who try to emulate Jobs by being “direct” (that is, rude) to employees when their work isn’t up to par. In contrast are the “rejectors” who pursue low-stress careers while making time for family.
This article is a helpful distillation of a common conversation about Steve Jobs since his death last fall: how much did he succeed by being mean? Is it worth being mean in one’s own career, if it brings Jobs-like wealth and influence? The quotes really make the piece, as they accurately depict the range of personalities in the tech industry. (I was happy to see Matt Haughey included; this video of his Gel 2010 talk shows how his positive, community-centered approach made Metafilter a success. Count me in his camp.)
Despite all this, I think the article is centered on the wrong issue. The media has missed a much larger, much more important point: Steve Jobs was the first CEO to bet the company on the user experience. From the very beginning of Apple, and renewing his efforts when he returned as interim CEO, Jobs was constantly focused on building products that would deliver the best possible experience – rather than the most up-to-date chipset, or the best partner arrangements, or the most horrific monopolistic lock-in scheme.
These days it’s not so unusual to hear entrepreneurs, even CEOs, give lip service to the idea of the customer experience. Some of them even believe it and try to influence their organization in that direction. But back in the mid-80s, and then again in the late 90s, it was exceedingly rare to see a CEO explicitly, intentionally build a strategy around this idea.
Jobs may not have invented the mouse, or the graphical user interface, or the idea of a handheld mobile device. But he did show the world what can happen if a CEO commits his or her company, strategically and fully, to the customer experience. The trajectory of Apple over the past 15 years can be seen as one massive, controlled experiment of an experience-led organization. (I couldn’t have planned a better case study to demonstrate what I’ve been writing about for all these years.) Everyone knows the results: After a few rocky years, Apple’s strategy started to pay off. Then while other technology companies stumbled, faltered, or disappeared altogether, Apple went from success to success.
Steve Jobs provides a lesson for every entrepreneur, and it’s not about whether you should be rude to your employees. (By the way, you shouldn’t.) Instead, the question is: will you commit yourself, and your team, to creating a good experience for your customer?