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What We Can Learn From Steve Jobs

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Apple may be the most admired company in the world. Valued at $170 billion, much of the company’s success is owed to its late founder, Steve Jobs, who is often called one of the most influential business leaders of the early 21st century.

Many people have sought to understand Jobs, a complicated but brilliant man whose flaws and idiosyncrasies played out alongside his genius and foresight. Walter Isaacson’s new biography (authorized by Jobs before his death), sheds some light on his thought processes, visions, insight, and philosophy.

Steve Jobs’ behavior was often eccentric, even off-putting. A control freak, so driven by perfectionism that he couldn’t choose home furnishings, he also had poor hygiene and thought that his vegan diet meant he could go days without bathing. Although a billionaire, Jobs rarely shared Apple’s profits or participated in philanthropy like his peer Bill Gates. In the end, he put off surgery to remove a tumor for nine months, which may have allowed his cancer to spread and ultimately contributed to his death in October 2001 at 56 years old.

The man who helped make Apple a household name could also be tactless in interpersonal relationships. Job’s inability to hide his opinions or soften their delivery manifested itself in “a conscious readiness, even a perverse eagerness, to put people down, humiliate them, and show he was smarter,” according to Isaacson, who says that Jobs was “rough on people.” This did not exclude family, friends, or employees, which led to strained relationships with Jobs’ children and staff alike. His perfectionism struck fear into the heart of Apple’s employees, who tried desperately to please him, and he raged against competitors who he thought had stolen his ideas. Isaacson’s book notes, “Driven by demons, Jobs could drive many around him to fury and despair.”

Yet despite considerable personal flaws, Jobs was an undeniably successful inventor, visionary, and business leader who raised three struggling companies (including Pixar) to Fortune 500 status. At the time of his death, Apple had more cash than the federal government. What about Jobs, and the way he ran his company, contributed to this astronomical success? The following are some ways that Steve Jobs’ Apple became the industry leader that it is today.

(Strategic) Differences: In a crowded marketplace, successful businesses stand out. They don’t predict the future—like Apple, they invent it. Jobs and his staff met weekly to brainstorm, and his vision inspired and galvanized his staff. This created an atmosphere where, as Jobs told

Time, Apple could “do things that the other guys can’t do.” Apple’s “Think Different” motto also sums up this philosophy.

Execution: Jobs valued creativity, but knew Apple also had to “get things done!” He made decisions quickly and decisively.

Inspired Staff: Jobs believed that he could do anything, and he convinced his staff that they could too. Employees genuinely liked working for Apple and using its cutting-edge products, which helped keep turnover low. Most were more than willing to go the proverbial “extra mile” for the company. Jobs himself always said that it was a rewarding, magical journey.

Staying Hungry: Success can be your enemy.Don’t ever believe that you’ve arrived and can sit back and relax. Take a cute from Apple and always be thinking about the next step.

Clear Branding: Customers should know who you are, what you stand for, and where your talents lie. Apple products are easily distinguishable by their slick marketing and design.

Understanding the Customer: Apple employees served as the first focus group for the company’s products. Jobs and other leaders pushed products that their staff desired and met frequently to anticipate which products and services would be appealing to their customers. Apple’s customer loyalty helped the company rebound quickly if it fell behind in the marketplace.

Focus: Job’s passionate, laser-like dedication to a few things at a time is reminiscent of Jim Collins’ teachings in Good to Great. Jobs learned to turn down opportunities that didn’t fit within Apple’s unique skills and goals. Isaacson notes, “He emphasized that you should never start a company with the goal of getting rich. Your goal should be making something you believe in and making a company that will last.”

Simplicity: When developing products, the Apple culture emphasized ease-of-use. Jobs knew that people often judge a book by its cover, so even product packaging was designed to be minimalist and easily recognizable.

High Expectations: For Apple,excellence was the norm. Jobs said of the staff, “By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things.”

Artistic Thinking: Jobs and his staff took time to perfect their products, even if it meant redoing them over and over. Likewise, our employees and leaders take pride in perfecting our work and client relationships like artists working on a masterpiece.  

Curiosity: Entrepreneurs are always dreaming. We see things others don’t and do things others think impossible. Like Jobs, entrepreneurs never give up on their vision, even when facing considerable obstacles.

Innovation: In 2007, a profitable division of one of our companies dwindled to nothing and we had to quickly reconsider the products and services we offered. If we had been constantly reinventing our business (likeJobs and his team), we would not have been caught off guard by the changes in customer demands.

Collaboration: Jobs demanded that all divisions work together as one on Apple products. Cooperation and good communications were ingrained in the corporate culture.

Effective Marketing: Jobs knew that a company could have the best products in the world, but without good marketing, they would go unnoticed. Thus, Apple spent huge amounts on marketing and subsequently obtained a cult following.

Smart Risk-taking: Jobs carefully assessed each risk and then took bold moves. However, he was not afraid to pull the plug on or seriously delay projects that he felt were unready for the marketplace.

Continuous Learning: Jobs developed Apple University, where executives taught classes so the “Apple style of decision making would be imbedded in the culture.”

Focus on the Future: Jobs hired only outstanding, talented people and integrated his philosophy deeply into Apple’s genes. These factors ensure that Apple will survive beyond his death, and his spirit lives on in the company and its employees.

Adam Beam of The State newspaper summed it up: “Being Steve Jobs may create a great company. But it may not be the best way to lead a life.” Jobs made a lasting contribution to the business world, although at the cost of many personal relationships. However, the business tactics he applied at Apple are valuable to leaders worldwide.

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Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College School of Business and is president of DuBose Web Group. You can view our published articles at www.duboseweb.com.

Mike DuBose has been in business since 1981 and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He is the servant owner of three debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. For more articles, visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com.

Katie Beck serves as senior technical writer to the DuBose family of companies. She is a graduate of the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

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