The Day I Hung Up on Steve Jobs
And why you should always choose to believe the impossible
It was early 2009. I know the date because it’s burnt into my brain, an indelible scar. Like most people exposed to smartphones in the early days, I always felt I had an app in me. Somewhere. It just needed that lightbulb moment to extract it and then plan my retirement. I’d always fancied Marbella.
I’m not a formally trained programmer but I can code. I’m self taught and have even been known to produce a few elegant lines that perform the required task without hanging. So how difficult could an app be, right?
I’d just read the insane story about the politically correct smiley faces (they’re various shades of color for those who don’t know) and the Indian gentleman who’d created them, sitting in Africa somewhere, knee deep in millions of dollars. Game on.
I’d put together a few ideas, but none screamed ‘buy me’. Not even softly. Then my six year old son came to my rescue. He had an anaphylactic attack. For those of you not familiar with the term, it’s when your airways restrict from an allergic reaction and you can suffocate as a result. Sounds terrifying and unless you’re prepared, it is.
I have multiple offspring and it takes a little more than breathing difficulties to phase me. Having kids will do that to you. I injected him, waited until his purple hue had returned to a normal pinky shade. and gave him a huge slobbery kiss.
His near-death experience had just given me a brain wave. His peanut allergy was a constant concern. Very few foods were labelled correctly and only some companies listed nuts on their products as a potential source for allergic reactions. This called for an app.
I had the whole thing planned and mapped out in two days. Essentially, it was a bar code scanner, but with a difference. Using the app and the phone’s camera, you could quickly identify potential allergens in products on your local supermarket shelves.
Scan the code and any potential allergens you’d highlighted would show up in the warnings. No allergens, no warning. Sheer genius and potentially life saving.
A perfect solution for someone in a hurry and if you’ve ever tried to read the minute print used for ingredient lists on products, you’ll know where I’m coming from.
I created the whole interface and branding for the app, designed mockups for the various screens, ran a few tests and then stopped. There was a problem, one which I probably should have thought of earlier, but in my defence I was excited. Really excited.
If you’ve ever wandered through your local supermarket, you’ll appreciate the sheer scale of trying to input the ingredients from the 7 million different products in the first aisle alone.
How to get around this small technical hurdle? I spent a few days pacing and head scratching and then had another light bulb moment. The app was definitely sound. The idea was great, all I lacked was the infrastructure to add the data. I needed a big friend to help. I made a few calls to developer friends and started asking around.
I chatted to a few people over the course of the next three days and then, through sheer luck. was introduced to a programmer who had worked with Steve Jobs.
He loved the idea and was immediately excited by the possibilities of adding the software directly into the iOS rather than building an app. I had designed the app for iOS and was over the moon.
Now we were talking. I forwarded him a NDC (I was excited, not stupid) and he asked me to leave the project with him for a few days whilst he called in a few favours. He was also going to also approach Steve Jobs directly.
“Leave it with me, I’ll chat to Steve.”
“Get him to call me directly,” I joked. “Who better to get the concept from than the horse's mouth.”
He laughed and hung up. That was a Tuesday. I took a deep breath and decided to spend the next few days looking at beach front properties in Marbella. I also chatted to a few close friends, mostly to check on my new acquaintance.
Did he, in fact, have contact with Jobs? He checked out. He’d worked on the software for the iPhone 3 and left Apple shortly after the phone’s launch to join a new startup.
A week passed and no call. I emailed my contact and asked about progress. His reply was short and to the point. Working on it. Not sure what to make of that I decided to give it a little more time. Another week passed with no call or feedback. I chatted to my friends again. Had I been shafted? Most were supportive and a few were amused.
“Don’t stress, I’m sure Steve’s just trying to find your number.”
With friends like that, well yeah. We all have them.
Then on the following Friday, almost three weeks later, I received a call. It was from a withheld number and I looked suspiciously at the phone. I’m not a fan of cold callers. I answered hesitantly and was told by a brusque woman to please hold for Steve.
I immediately smelt a rat. The friends I had chatted to are for the most part nerds. Nerds with a very particular sense of humor. I know because I share it. This was a set up, for sure. I stayed on hold. If they’d gone to the effort, I was going to play along.
It took about three minutes before the call connected and it was just enough time for me to work out my snarky reply.
“Hi,” said the voice. “It’s Steve Jobs. Ted suggested I call you. You’ve got a project that sounds exciting.”
I didn’t hesitate.
“Hi Steve. Sorry, I can’t chat right now. I’ve got Bill Gates on hold.”
and then I hung up.
We all know where this is going, don’t we? Hindsight is a wonderful thing and opportunities are like diamonds. They’re incredibly hard to find and really easy to miss. Of course, it hadn’t been any of my friends. It had indeed been Steve Jobs.
I sent him an email the next day apologising profusely. I’m not sure if he ever received it. My contact was less than impressed with his wasted efforts and my friends, ten years later, collapse in fits of mirth when they recall the story. I still receive calls with people going, “please hold for Steve.”
There was of course no going back. I’d snubbed one of the biggest names in the industry. My app, which should have been dead in the water at that point, did eventually see the market place. Eight months later and vastly scaled down.
The next time you open your iPhone and click on Health, spare a thought for the idiot who hung up on Steve Jobs. My app could have been embedded in the software, right there for you to click on.
I could have been sitting in Marbella right now, on my yacht, sipping Dom Perignon and mulling over the really important decisions in life. Which car for the evening, the Lambo or the Aston?
Instead, I’m in front of my keyboard, recording my ignorance for posterity so others may learn.
The moral is a simple one. If you reach for the golden hoop be prepared for disappointment, but never, ever, be unprepared for that remote possibility of success.
And no, you can’t have my number.