I was at an acquaintance’s flat in Cape Town one day, looking at his bookshelf. This is often one of the first things I do when I walk into a new house. It’s a great way to find something new to read, get a sense of the person you’re visiting. I noticed that he had Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, so I asked him how it was. His response, “I got more out of the Elon Musk biography. I didn’t get more than a few chapters into this one.”
Now I already had misgivings about this book. When it first came out shortly after Steve Jobs’ death, I thought it was a cash grab, an assumption that coloured my view of the book for a number of years. Yet I kept hearing a lot of good things about it notwithstanding the above comment. So when I got home from my holidays, I bought both the Elon Musk biography and this Steve Jobs one.
The Elon Musk biography was excellent, and I got a lot out of it. But I’ll leave that for another time. Unlike my erstwhile host, I got a lot out of this book, the first being that Jobs commissioned the book himself a few years before he passed away.
Whoops! Turns out it takes longer than a month to create a book.
I was never a fan of Steve Jobs, and it’s safe to say I won’t purchase anything from Apple. I still don’t know what the point of an iPad is. Yet the man truly was an inspiration and is someone worth learning from. One thought which kept going through my mind as I read was “What this man has achieved is staggering!”
The truth is, Steve Jobs in creating Apple, has changed so much of our modern world through both direct and indirect means that it is safe to say the world would be different if he never existed.
Everyone knows the contributions he made to society. The introduction of the personal computer. Turning Pixar from a software company into the giant of imagination it is today.
iTunes. iPod. iPad.
I could go on. The list is legion.
Yet that is not what interested me. No, it was the finer details of his life that fascinated me. That drew me in. The why and how of his achievements. His method of creating a company that was imprinted with his essence. How he used his skills and personality to do it.
When it came to that subject, there was a lot of knowledge throughout the book. A nugget on almost every page.
So I want to share with you 3 lessons that I learned from this book, 3 of many:
First, do not be afraid to replace your own product or service. As long as you are the one replacing it, you’ll be fine.
After the stunning success of the iPod and the subsequent revolution in the music industry that it caused, the iPod now accounted for 45 percent of Apple’s revenue. And Steve Jobs realized what it would take to replace it.
At that time, cellphones were becoming more and more technologically capable. They now had cameras and were destroying the digital camera market. Jobs knew that if someone attached a good enough music player to a cellphone, the iPod would become obsolete.
So he did it himself.
Jobs created the iPhone and gained control of a whole new market. Within 4 years, iPhone sales reaped more than half of all cellphone profits around the globe.
Out of Motorala, Nokia, Samsung, LG, and others, Apple gained half of all profits.
All because Jobs wasn’t afraid to replace his own product.
This is a lesson that can apply to much more than business and product development. On the whole, people are afraid of letting go of what they have in order to gain more. People don’t want to spend money on risks in case they lose it. People don’t want to quit jobs and start their own businesses as they are afraid that the jobs will be gone.
This doesn’t just apply to serious pursuits, but to almost all areas of life. I play online chess. When my score and rankings started to increase after all the study and effort I had put into the game, I was unwilling to play more games. What if I lose and then my ranking drops?
What a silly idea.
Every game played can be a lesson whether it is a win or a loss. Over time, that will compound into better chess skills that in turn lead to a higher ranking. I got over myself and started playing more games. Initially, my ranking took a nosedive, but over time, it improved to past where it was when I started.
The second lesson from Steve Jobs is to create an ecosystem where all the elements support each other.
When Jobs came back from his exile in 1997 he re-ordered the company. There’s the famous story that he had enough money to run Apple for 90 days before it went bankrupt. He went through every project that Apple was working on and removed most of them, leaving Apple with four products to develop.
This helped to create a tighter focus at the company. Most of the employees now supported all four projects with only a few key personnel dedicated to each of them.
Jobs also did away with the semi-independent departments that other companies use as a basis for organization. Now, there was one design department, one engineering department, one marketing department, and so forth. All departments now worked on the various product lines simultaneously.
In addition to that, Jobs reduced the accounting to one balance sheet. This allowed him to direct money to where it was needed across the company, instead of various departments jealously guarding their income statements and revenue.
The employees at Apple now work together for the benefit of the company as a whole. This also gave Jobs and Apple increased flexibility in designing new products and bringing them to market quicker than anyone else.
This was observed in the battles with the music companies whilst creating iTunes. These companies were formed from disparate entities that ended up fighting each other almost as much as they fought external competitors. It drastically reduced the collaboration that they could bring to bear when they needed to achieve something.
And here was one of the reasons why no music companies were able to put out a worthy competitor to iTunes, despite knowing how it worked, how popular it is, and even with Jobs telling them in advance exactly what he was going to do.
The third lesson was an observation by Jobs about the nature of companies that first ascend, and then slowly falter. It was a pattern he noticed in established companies, ones that had now achieved a monopoly or very large market share.
Now that their innovative products had become the industry standard, they stopped valuing the designers and engineers who created the products. Instead, they started valuing the salesmen and marketers who could now increase the revenue and bring in more market share. This led to decisions now being made by accountants and salesmen instead of the very people who got the company to their current position.
The modus operandi was now focused more on entrenching themselves and gaining percentage points over their competition. This led to the product designers becoming less important in the direction the company took, and helped blind the companies to what could overthrow them.
As they ceased to innovate, other smaller upstarts did. These upstarts created something revolutionary and overthrew the original companies.
History is littered with examples of this. Uber is currently replacing taxis. Apple and Android replaced Nokia. And Kodak was obliterated by digital cameras. This relates back to the first lesson, be aware of what it will take to replace you and make sure you are the one building it.
All told, this was an amazing book filled with many more lessons than are covered here. It is apparently among the top three most highlighted books on Amazon Kindle, alongside the Bible and The Hunger Games. The last one must be a lot of teenagers seeking wisdom.
What I find interesting is that a lot of people read this book, or they hear about how Jobs was an asshole and they think to themselves that being an asshole is the key to success. That’s not how it works. Jobs was way more driven than most people can ever hope to be. He had incredible strategic foresight and singular focus. He could sum people up and knew exactly how to push them to get the most out of them. The side effect of all that was that he was an asshole.
Jobs managed to build the most valued company in the world despite his leadership flaws. That alone was amazing and apart from everything else is an excellent reason to read the book.