Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Steve Jobs: An Incredible Life

Last week brought the sad news of the passing of Steve Jobs, one of the world’s greatest inventors, marketers, leaders, and entrepreneurs. By now, you probably are familiar with his legendary story and accomplishments, which are virtually unrivaled. 

In 1976, at the mature age of 21, he co-founded Apple with his high school friend (Steve Wozniak) in his parents’ garage. Between 1977 (when Apple introduced the Apple II) and 1981 (when Apple went public), Apple’s sales grew from $2 million to $600 million. He wasn’t the technical developer of Apple’s computer technology, but he was the leader who saw the potential in taking computers out of research laboratories and big businesses and bringing them into the homes of everyday people. Our lives have been forever and remarkably changed by his vision. 

During some time away from Apple in the mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s, he bought a struggling computer animated graphics company named Pixar from George Lucas. Few others—if any—saw the potential of computer animated graphics, but that changed in 1995 when Pixar released Toy Story. Since then, Pixar has gone on to release such other favorites as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Up, and Monsters, Inc., and along the way has changed the way in which we watch animated movies. Pixar eventually went public and then was sold to the Walt Disney Company in 2007 for $7.4 billion. As a result of the sale, Mr. Jobs became the largest shareholder in the Walt Disney Company at that time. 

Mr. Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 as a consultant, and assumed the CEO position again in 2000. After his return to Apple, he led the teams that developed iTunes, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. It’s hard to imagine our lives without some or all of these inventions. He was the visionary leader behind all these successes, and he personally changed the way that we listen to music, access information (through our phones and tablets), communicate with others, and watch movies. It’s an incredible legacy.

And yet, his story is not just about unbridled success. It is also about persevering through failures. It doesn’t seem possible now, but in its earliest days, not everything Apple touched turned to gold. In the early ‘80s, for example, Apple tried to introduce an office workstation named Lisa. It was not a commercial success, and that, together with some other commercial failures, led to Mr. Jobs’ ouster from Apple in 1985. 

Mr. Jobs’ response to his ouster, and his remarkable success thereafter, reminded me of a blog post about failure authored by my colleague Frank Vargas several months ago. In his post, Frank suggested that entrepreneurs (and any one else for that matter) can use failure as a learning experience upon which to build the foundation for future success.  

After leaving Apple, in addition to acquiring Pixar, Mr. Jobs started a new company, called NeXT, the initial purpose of which was to create a workstation computer for the higher-education market to enable teachers and students to access digital books, music, art, and other intellectual content. While NeXT never enjoyed great commercial success, it established a business model that ultimately was the basis for the iTunes pricing scheme with which almost everyone is familiar today. And, it was on a NeXT computer that the first version of the World Wide Web was developed by a young programmer named Tim Berners-Lee. NeXT was acquired by Apple in 1996 for $430 million, leading to Mr. Jobs rejoining the company he co-founded. The rest, as they say, is history.

There are myriad lessons one can glean from Mr. Jobs’ incredible life. I don’t think that his legendary charisma or visionary leadership are traits that we can all adapt and use in our own companies and businesses. Some of those qualities you either have or you don’t. But we can gain lessons from the way in which he dealt with the very few failures he encountered. He was not deterred by those experiences, but rather learned from them and developed greater products as a result.

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