5 Lessons From Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is one of the most extraordinary entrepreneurs and CEOs in history. Here are five lessons on entrepreneurship and business learned by studying him from afar (post inspired by Tren Griffin):

  1. Compromise where others refuse. Most people saw Jobs as a perfectionist. In reality, he revolutionized industries by redefining what mattered most in products, which by definition, required compromising on “essential” features. The leading smartphone in 2007, for instance, optimized around battery life and tactile keyboards. The iPhone, on the other hand, purposely sacrificed in these dimensions to optimize around the web and digital media. Staying focused and refusing good ideas, it turns out, entails tradeoffs others are unwilling to make. Read more.
  2. Ignore experts if you know something they don’t. Today, Apple is the leading retailer in the world, earning $6,050 per square foot, besting even iconic brands like Tiffany and Coach. Experts, however, originally ridiculed Jobs’s decision to break its traditional distribution model, which relied on partners like CompUSA to educate and sell prospective customers. Even some Apple board members objected. The prevailing wisdom treated computers as commodities, but what Jobs saw and experts did not, was Apple’s ability to craft differentiated electronics in the same way Coach provided differentiated handbags. Proprietary stores were the most effective way to present premium products and justify high prices. Jobs knew better.
  3. Iterate away from the spotlight. The secrecy Jobs maniacally cultivated at Apple generated free publicity for product launches, but there was another benefit to secrecy. As Jony Ives described, Jobs recognized and respected the fragility of ideas, how negativity and inhospitable conditions could extinguish ideas. The best way to iterate and invent differentiated products is when the spotlight isn’t magnifying every mistake and expectations aren’t encumbering every idea. The lesson isn’t to experiment alone in a cocoon — far from it. Soliciting feedback, from the right people, was central to the Apple development cycle: the Apple executive team critiqued products every Monday. Seek feedback, but don’t seek attention until you’re done iterating.
  4. Build for the future, not the present. Lots of people can imagine the future, but what distinguished Jobs was the ability to overcome the pressures of the present and not only see the future, but deliver it. The Macintosh popularized graphical interfaces; the iMac popularized USB technology; and the iPhone popularized multi-touch screens, the bedrock of modern smartphones. Although these choices seem obviously correct now, they were far from uncontroversial at the time. In all cases, Jobs compromised on present demands and risked losing users, yet he built for the future no matter how loudly critics derided and consumers complained. For example, the Macintosh rendered most software programs useless since they optimized for keyboards and text commands, not graphical interfaces. This angered some vendors who needed to rewrite programs while disappointing users who preferred the simplicity of text screens. Jobs ultimately trusted the computer of the future would create more customers and generate more happiness, so he willingly sacrificed the present for the future. Jobs knew disruption meant upsetting people. One implication: disruption is far easier for followers because it by definition involves upsetting the existing ecosystem of customers, partners, and suppliers. Followers can take solace in knowing they can afford to build the future and introduce radical ideas while the leader must innovate within the bounds of the status quo.
  5. Magical products require methodical iteration. The iPad launched in 2010, but development began in 2002. The iPhone launched in 2007, but development began in 2005, though one could argue its origins were rooted in the 2002 iPad experiment. Apple manufactured 17 prototypes of the iPhone — not paper mockups, but finished devices. Apple Stores evolved over three years, beginning with more mundane concepts before morphing into the glittering masterpieces of retail they represent today. Even keynotes involved extensive rehearsal and planning, sometimes forcing employees to end vacations early in order to assist with preparation. Much as commercials and media myths may suggest otherwise, Steve Jobs did not spawn genius ideas with intuition and talent alone. The otherworldly magic of Apple, in fact, sprang from the earthly qualities of dedication and diligence.