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
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