Compromise, Not Perfection, Made Steve Jobs Different

Jobs was no perfectionist, and why entrepreneurs should care.

Conventional narratives portray Steve Jobs as a perfectionist, someone maniacally committed to the pursuit of flawless products. This misguided interpretation not only robs Jobs of his true genius, it steers entrepreneurs down the wrong path.

He was detail-oriented, certainly, and could obsess over trivial elements like the number of screws a laptop case contained. Being detail-oriented and being a perfectionist, however, are not the same.

The iPhone was far from perfect. In fact, it performed poorly in several dimensions compared to leading smartphones at the time. Battery life was terrible, typing was difficult, and call quality was mediocre.

The Mac was far from perfect. In fact, it performed poorly in several dimensions compared to leading computers at the time. Multi-tasking was impossible, memory was limited, and the screen only displayed in black and white.

Steve Jobs did not demand perfection. He knew products would never launch, much less thrive, if perfection were the threshold. Presenting Jobs as uncompromising biases entrepreneurs toward perfection, suggesting it is part of the formula for upending industries and dominating markets.

The true genius of Jobs was not refusing to compromise. His true genius, on the contrary, was embracing trade-offs others thought were foolish. Like trading hardware customizability for hardware beauty. Others describe this more superficially as focusing, but everyone knows to focus — the question is how. Focus demands excluding functionality some people, perhaps many, deem valuable. Focus requires saying “No” even if many scream “Yes.” In Jobs’ own words (h/t to HN user, mantrax5):

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.
Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.
And it’s that process that is the magic.

Steve Jobs’ singular talent was recognizing what mattered most to mass markets and optimizing for those dimensions — even at the expense of critical features. For instance, the iPhone sacrificed a physical keyboard in exchange for a larger screen. While this choice made emails harder to write, it made browsing the web and watching videos easier and more enjoyable. Prioritizing the web and media over email dismayed executives but delighted consumers. While designing for normal users and not power users seems obvious now, leading smartphones at the time, like the BlackBerry, did the exact opposite.

For entrepreneurs, the lesson is that simplicity and disruption often entail compromising in ways many consider unacceptable.