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Steve Jobs: the agony, the ecstasy and the LSD

Usually, I’d rather gouge my own eyes out than read an authorised biography of a business leader.

Thus I initially avoided Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, which I assumed was stuffed with trite homilies and pat lessons – especially given Isaacson is an alumnus of the often insufferably pompous Time magazine. And, in truth, I was a little over-dosed on the Apple co-founder, fascinating as his life is.

Now, I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

Steve Jobs is authorised, but it's an engrossing account. And, more important, totally unsentimental. Jobs was not allowed to review the manuscript before it was published, Isaacson says, and it certainly reads like that was the case.

In the wake of Jobs’ death, several commentators published lists along the lines of the Top 10 business lessons you could learn from the Apple founder.

Good luck with that. Jobs was so far out of earth orbit that it’s difficult to see any fresh-faced business or tech graduate following in his footsteps.

To do so would require turning up to meetings with potential investors barefoot, gobbling LSD, fasting for days at a time, and being inhumanly rude to family, friends and colleagues.

I was broadly aware that Jobs was not always liked by people he worked with, and that his personal style was quirky and Apple’s beginnings colourful.

But the sheer madness of the early years rather blew me away.

Living in Silicon Valley – which runs between San Francisco and San Jose – during many of his early years, Jobs saw himself standing at the intersection of the technology and creative industries.

The hippie era was fading as hardcore geek Wozniak and Jobs got together in the early 70s to co-found Apple.

Yet Jobs managed to be more hippie that most who’d come before, living on a commune for a period and making a pilgrimage to India – but, more, carrying over his lifestyle into his early business life.

Jobs turned up to meetings with potential investors disheveled and shoeless, took LSD for creative inspiration (and smoked robust amounts of marijuana for recreation) and showered only once a week – figuring his “fruitarian diet” meant he could shower only once a week without reeking of body odour (a theory vigorously disputed by contemporaries).

The Apple cofounder dressed shabbily, was highly emotional (all his working life he was prone to tears), screamed at staff for real or imagined imperfections, and grossed out co-workers by soothing his often bare feet in a toilet.

Despite a makeover in the wardrobe department, most of Jobs' other quirks persisted through his career. At many times he acted like a nutter, bully and narcissist.

He was also a business genius.

His talent emerged when he met Steve Wozniak as a teen.

The young pair's first product was the $US150 Blue Box, a gadget that allowed a person to hack AT&T’s toll system to make free inter-state or international calls. The pair sold around 100.

There was nothing new about this wildly illegal gadget. “Phreaks” had known how to make free calls for years. But the Blue Box was more elegantly engineered (thanks to Wozniak) and more elegantly packaged and marketed (thanks to Jobs).

Jobs learned that if your product was better presented, and more user-friendly, you could win customers – and charge a big mark up (the Blue Box cost around $US40 to assemble).

And despite his rank personal appearance, Jobs was obsessed with giving the Apple I the right look and feel.

Other early personal computers came in grey steel boxes. Inspired by Cuisinart kitchen products he saw at Macys, Jobs wanted the Apple I to have a moulded plastic case.

He learned early on that packaging and presentation could “imprint” a brand on a customer.

With his passion for perfection and, and obsession for end-to-end control, Jobs revolutionised six industries, Isaacson says: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.

I’d add a seventh, software, given AppStore’s success.

Some his success was down to prescience, but dumb luck also played a party.

Jobs preferred closed, proprietary systems, the better to exercise total control over design and function. It was a philosophy he followed all of his working life.

And so it was that when the music industry was flailing around for a digital strategy, it naturally turned to Apple, and its tightly controlled iTunes store that would only work with iPods.

However, it was Jobs himself who took things to the next level, persuading record companies to disaggregate singles.

And it was almost by sheer force of personality alone that Jobs turned Pixar from Disney’s hired hand to an equal business partner.

Another traditional business maxim is that you learn from your mistakes.

But while Jobs had his failures – most notably NeXT, his attempt to build a high-end computer – he was not in any way humbled by the experience.

He maintained a blind self-belief that his way was the best way, and he was usually right.

Can Apple thrive without him?

By Isaacson’s account, Jobs was the melding force between Apple’s bean counters, engineers and designers, unifying them into a single vision and, so frequently, demanding they remove features.

Apple still has its most crack logistics guy – Tim Cook, now CEO – and its ace designer, Englishman Jony Ive (who has become Sir Jonathan since Jobs’ death).

Obviously, the pair, and others, have helped Apple move to new heights over the past year.

But the company faces new challenges, including how to react to kitchen-sink Android phones, and now tablets that are gaining so much market share, and whether to build a TV, to name but two.

As ever, engineers, designers and accountants will all have different ideas on the best approach. Jobs would have had the vision, charisma and terrorising force to bring them to a single, coherent strategy (admittedly after much screaming, tantrums and tears).

Cook, in his much more orthodox fashion, is so far doing well. But maybe, sometimes, you need a little bit of crazy.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, Kindle edition $9.99

More by Chris Keall

Comments and questions
11

V good summary Chris.

Isaacson, the author of the biography, has a piece in the latest Harvard Business Review on biz lessons to be learned from Jobs: he's not just a mad man and of course he had masssive wins.

Plenty of other entrepreneurs and business leaders (plus political leaders and others) after all had or have major pyschological problems. The flipside of the problem can be the strengh.

Isaacson in his book only touches on Jobs' disorders, when he identifies that he had a narcissistic personality disorder. A number of shrinks however have leveraged off the book to analyse Jobs in more detail. At www.psychologytoday.com/blog/leading-emotional-intelligence/201111/steve-jobs-superman-syndrome-low-eq-high-iq , Dr Relly Nalder starts a series of interesting blogs, building the profile and relevance for business, kicking off with:

"A psychological profile of Jobs leadership style is full of contrasts from a visionary and genius prophetic to a tyranitical narcissist verging on abusing employees and ignoring all views but his own."

Great book instead but I'd rather model myself on someone like Richard branson. Jobs could be much too nasty, rude and often depressed.

Remember the name of the company that saved Apple just as it was about to go down the plug hole. Invested $150M August 6 1997. Name escapes me but I think it bigins with M........

[Isaacson writes quite a lot about the relationship between Jobs and Gates - sometimes friends, and sometimes rivals.

He pitches Microsoft's investment in Apple as part of the pair's symbiotic, love-hate relationship.

Personally, I saw it as more of a purely pragmatic move by Microsoft, which was looking to prop up a competitor at a time when it was facing a lot of regulatory heat over Windows' near-monopoly of the PC market. - CK]

Well, you're being a revisionist of history. You are correct that Microsoft had little choice but to invest in Apple... Steve Jobs had Bill Gates in a headlock at the time, and threatened to testify for the DOJ unless Gates updated MS Office for the Mac. Plus MS was caught stealing QuickTime code, so the paltry $150 million sum was mainly hush money.
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Apple had $1.1 Billion in cash at the time, and no long term debt, so Apple was not in fear of going under, it just would have been a much smaller company. (From $13B to about $5B) at the rate they were going.
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Now Apple is worth over twice the value of Microsoft, so it all worked out in the end.
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But no, Microsoft didn't "save" Apple, that was an urban myth.

I must say that Steve Jobs would make a difference!

LSD should be part of the Bcomm degree

TIME-writer or not, I would've thought that Walter Issacson's biography would be more than just awe-inflected; pandering to his subject's conceits.

Paradoxically, the mercurial Jobs is almost the antithesis of Apple. On the one hand, its creative genius -- and driving force -- is seen as cold and self-absorbed, while Apple's products invoke the warm-fuzzies with its legion of consumers, by being user-friendly and engaging.

Also, Jobs' so-called nemesis John Sculley (whom Jobs recruited from PepsiCo) can take credit in altering his career trajectory by ousting him in the mid-80s; thus, allowing Jobs to further develop his creativity and vision at NeXT/Pixar, before returning to Apple and setting the world ablaze.

I think, that Jobs' final death-bed utterances, sums up the person and his legacy.

FFS - Get over Steve Jobs already!! He is DEAD!!!!!!

I think Apples biggest product release however was the isheep (othrwise known as the i-assh*le)- fanatical users with now real tach savvy but a strong sense of certainty that they are right and anyone else who isn't a devout Apple zealot is wrong....

Thanks for that Steve...

slow news day Chris??? Jops has been compost for ages and suddenly this is newsworthy? Meh

I think he was just one lucky bast*rd, that's all. He might be instrumental to the invention of the tablet PC and smartphone but on the grander scheme of things, did it made any difference on improving the basic human values and attitudes? Or solving proverty and income inequality? NOT