Steve Jobs in 1982 cruising on his 1966 R60/2 BMW Motorcycle

Steve Jobs You Are Not

Why startups need to start a never-ending conversation with their customers, and stop torturing themselves by emulating a legendary design giant and the company he founded.

Full disclosure, I worked at Apple for four years. (Just up to the original iPhone being released). I now run my own UI/UX design firm and a design blog.

Since leaving Apple, I’ve worked with many startups. I’ve found that people who run and work for startups are generally bright and hard-working. Passionate about their companies. You can’t help but admire these folks, and I absolutely love working with most of them. But, ever since Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs came out a trend has reared its somewhat ugly head. This trend deserves a Jesus-inspired hashtag: #WhatWouldSteveDo.

My thinking is not new —some of my colleagues in the design industry are on record about how the Isaacson book has made our job both easier and more difficult at the same time. Easy, in that “design first” has become a practice that many startups now follow in earnest. Difficult in that “customer first” has fallen to benchwarmer status. On the team but no longer a starter. And sadly, because of some interesting quotes, (and the man was quotable) there are those who think Steve Jobs ignored his customers when it came to building the Apple experience. Not true.

Building A Faster Horse

I was witness to the beginnings of #WhatWouldSteveDo. At an Apple town hall meeting, Steve, in answering an employee’s question about involving customers, uttered the following Henry Ford saying,

“How does somebody know what they want if they haven’t even seen it?” An actual, Jobs quote, but not as good of a sound bite as Ford’s . Although, there’s no proof that Henry Ford ever said this in his lifetime. (But never let that stand in the way of a good story).

A poster-worthy saying if nothing else. Nonetheless, that quote vibrated out to the design and business world immediately. Many companies (and especially startups) took this quote literally: Steve Jobs doesn’t follow his customers, so we’re going to go with our guts as well, and MVP the hell out of our products. However, if I were ever asked by a startup founder what I thought about the “Faster Horse” quote, I would lead with a slight jab,

But didn’t Ford also manufacture the Edsel?
1958 Edsel. Considered Detroits & Ford’s biggest marketing and manufacturing disaster.

Then, just when I have that startup founder thinking about that fail-whale of a Ford, I would unleash my haymaker,

Steve Jobs at the time of that town hall had been intimately listening to his customers for thirty-years, and this experience already informed his every decision. It was embedded in his DNA. Besides, asking a customer what they want is just plain lazy. It’s not a customers’ job to come up with new ideas for products or features.

So, Steve Jobs had been close to his customers for three decades. In stark comparison, how many months has a startup even been in business, yet alone figured out who their customers really are? It’s absurd to compare a young startup, still in its infancy, with a mature company that has a groupie-like following. But I can already hear my startup clients counter with this argument,

“But we’ll MVP this release, and learn about our customers through A/B testing, Google Analytics…watching funnels…hot-spot evaluation, etc…”

Those are all nice tools to coldly dissect your audience’s behavior, but how about having an old-fashioned conversation with a few of you potential customers as well?

Steve Jobs at the the Palo Alto Apple store. Photo by Gary Allen.

Management By Walking Around (Down To The Apple Store)

So am I saying that you speak to a few customers and suddenly you’re enlightened enough to understand all of your customers’ wants and needs? Good gravy, I wish it was that easy. Customer development is an endless cycle. Take Steve for instance, the man personally emailed and called customers — ones who loved Apple, and those who found fault with its products. He would make it a habit of walking down from his house to the Palo Alto Apple store to converse firsthand with employees and customers. Steve knew his customers, and he always put them first and foremost when it came to enhancing the Apple experience. Anticipating and understanding his customers better than anyone else at Apple. That’s what thirty years of paying close attention to your customers will do to a person.

Steve being Steve. Apple Campus parking lot.

The Human Comet

No doubt that Steve Jobs was a walking paradox. Born with brilliance to burn, yet gets kicked out of Apple 1.0. (Which may have been the best thing that ever happened to him and Apple). He could be a total dick, but then be unbelievably kind. I believe he would have been amused by this hero-worship that hinges on every utterance he ever made. But then again, he mastered the art of myth-building.

As it is well-known, Jobs didn’t believe in focus groups. No need to since he was a focus group of one who trusted his instincts — instincts built and formed with a generation of upclose customer experience. You just can’t substitue this type of intuition and knowledge with lessons from the latest best-selling tome or analytic software.

Steve Jobs set the bar incredibly high— it would be nearly impossible for any company to follow the Apple way. But a company and its leaders can decide whether to measure from a distance, or maintain the discipline to have a never-ending conversation with its customers.

Besides, a human comet like Steve Jobs only comes around every 100 years or so.