Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs: The exclusive biography, tells the story of Jobs’ life – from his rebellious teenage years and growing hippy leanings to his passion for tinkering with electronics and the friendship with Steve Wozniak that ultimately led to the founding of Apple in Jobs’ parents’ garage.
Isaacson also reveals the evolution of the Apple boss’ business strategy, which enabled him to make his second term at Apple even more successful than his first – and to push the company to heights few would have thought possible years earlier.
How did Jobs do it? His leadership, management style and business sense were as distinctive as his personality – here are 10 lessons drawn from Isaacson’s biography on doing business, Steve Jobs-style.
1. Decisions: Don’t sit on the fence
Jobs was not a man to dither over decisions. He believed in listening to instinct and rarely lacked an opinion. He knew where he wanted to get to – and more often than not how to get there too.
Having a strong opinion meant the people around Jobs either bought into his vision or, if they opposed his view, were forced to defend an alternative position – building a powerful enough case to sway Jobs and proving the worth of their idea in the process.
Jobs was not above U-turning on his opinions or adopting someone else’s position as his own, frequently, as Isaacson tells it, without giving them credit for the original idea – so while he had strong opinions he was not closed-minded to good alternatives. The strength of the idea was what mattered.
But even Jobs’ U-turns were muscular and decisive; he did not flip-flop or vacillate. The result was that Apple under Jobs never lacked focus and its products reflected Jobs’ strong sense of purpose.
2. Communications: Cut to the chase
Jobs did not worry about offending people – either indirectly with his opinions or directly thanks to his often salty language. If he thought an idea was awful he would say so, and in no uncertain terms. His communication style is best described as abrasive – indeed, he actively encouraged people to…
…challenge him and certainly did not brook ‘yes men’ or sycophants, calling such people “bozos”, according to Isaacson. Rather, he valued clear thinking and the courage to defend that clarity under fire.
“People were allowed, even encouraged to challenge him,” writes Isaacson. “And sometimes he would respect them for it. But you had to be prepared for him to attack you, even bite your head off, as he processed your ideas.”
Jobs’ lack of a filter when expressing himself meant his emotions were often on show – Isaacson describes him screaming at people when angry or openly crying when under fire himself.
He was clearly not always the easiest person to work for. In one instance of plain-speaking, when Apple’s MobileMe effort had run into trouble, Jobs called the team responsible into a meeting and asked what the software service was supposed to do. After they had given their responses, he asked: “So why the f*ck doesn’t it do that?”
This straight-talking approach to business helped lock in Apple’s clarity of focus. There was no hiding behind meaningless management-speak in Cupertino and no jargon to spread FUD and muddle objectives. The result is a company that does not mix its messages and one that turns out clearly defined products.
3. Focus: Less is more, simpler is better
One of Jobs’ first acts on returning to Apple was to convene a big product strategy review and prune back a raft of products and features so that Apple could focus on a select few.
“Instead of encouraging each group to let product lines proliferate based on marketing considerations, or permitting a thousand ideas to bloom, Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time,” writes Isaacson.
Jobs’ clarity of focus owed a lot to Mike Markkula, a VC and marketing guru whom Jobs recruited to Apple when it was still based in his parents’ garage and who wrote most of Apple’s early business plan. Isaacson describes how Markkula also wrote a one-page paper entitled The Apple Marketing Philosophy which contained three core principles – including to focus on a few select things and eliminate “unimportant opportunities”.
Reducing the number of products to a handful of flagship items gave Apple back the strong focus it had lacked during the Jobs-less interregnum. “The company was churning out multiple versions of each product because of bureaucratic momentum and to satisfy the whims of retailers… Apple had a dozen versions of the Macintosh, each with a different confusing number,” Isaacson writes. It was even making printers and servers.
Jobs pruned the hardware product sprawl right back to just four machines: a consumer desktop Mac, a consumer portable Mac, a pro desktop and a pro portable. “The result was that Apple…
…engineers and managers suddenly became sharply focused on just four areas,” Isaacson writes, quoting Jobs as saying: “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
4. Details: The devil is in them
Isaacson chronicles how Jobs obsessed over the tiniest details: the design of the case for the Apple II, the shape of the windows on the Mac’s GUI, the colour of iMac blue in its first ad campaign, the machine having a CD slot not a tray, and the lighting at his launch keynotes. He would not stop obsessing until he could pronounce a product “insanely great” or ensure an event was rehearsed and choreographed to absolute perfection.
His perfectionism set the bar so high he was not a man to choose a cheaper material or a simpler design merely to cut costs. Nor would he ship a product he was not entirely happy with. Isaacson describes how the original iPhone was revised at the last minute, delaying its shipping date, because Jobs decided he was not 100 per cent happy with the design – telling his design chief Jony Ive: “I didn’t sleep last night because I realised that I just don’t love it.” Jobs then asked the iPhone team to work nights and weekends to accommodate the last-minute redesign.
Few other companies would take such care over the look and feel of a product but Jobs did not relegate design to an afterthought – he made it an overarching philosophy that underpinned the Apple brand. Such detail-oriented obsession allowed Jobs to produce products that few rivals could match for quality and attention to detail – and to launch these products at events that gave them the best possible start in life.
Isaacson quotes Jobs describing this detail-oriented philosophy: “If something isn’t right, you can’t just ignore it and say you’ll fix it later. That’s what other companies do.”
5. Design: Comes first, second and third
Design was never an afterthought at Apple under Jobs’ stewardship. On the contrary, design came first, second and third. It ran through everything the company did. Indeed, Apple engineers were frequently driven up the wall by the Apple practice of configuring the design of a product first and then requiring the technical guts to fit inside the design.
The iMac with its distinct, almost space-age looks and rich colours was a prime example of the phenomenon. Isaacson quotes Jobs describing the battle he and Ive had with engineers to get their way: “When we took it to the engineers they came up with 38 reasons they couldn’t do it. And I said, ‘No, no, we’re doing this’. And they said, ‘Well, why?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m the CEO, and I think it can be done’. And so they kind of grudgingly did it.”
The end result was a machine that stood apart from all the other computers on the market at that time. Prioritising design allowed Apple to stand out in the beige and boxy landscape dominated by Windows PC.
But design for Jobs was about a process too, not just aesthetics. For instance, Jobs pushed…
…the iPod design team to keep simplifying the process of selecting and playing music on the device – he wanted it to take a maximum of three clicks. The iPod was not the first MP3 player on the market by any means but it was the first to make ‘ease of use’ a design principle.
This ‘design first’ principle did sometimes have unforeseen consequences – as with problems caused by the antenna design of the iPhone 4. But ultimately, Apple’s iconic brand status is a direct result of Jobs championing great design – and understanding that user experience is something that can and should be designed.
6. Structure: Collaborate, integrate, connect
Jobs structured and aligned Apple under the same principles he used when designing products – fashioning the company as an integrated whole, not a series of siloed functions. This structure was crucial to giving Apple the ability to both tightly focus and move quickly.
“Because he believed that Apple’s great advantage was its integration of the whole widget – from design to hardware to software and content – he wanted all departments at the company to work together in parallel,” writes Isaacson. “The phrases he used were ‘deep collaboration’ and ‘concurrent engineering’.”
“Jobs did not organise Apple into semi-autonomous divisions; he closely controlled all of his teams and pushed them to work as one cohesive and flexible company, with one profit-and-loss bottom line,” Isaacson adds. “Instead of a development process in which a product would be passed sequentially from engineering to design to manufacturing to marketing and distribution, these various departments collaborated simultaneously.”
This connected structure was the reason why Apple was able to create a successful, integrated digital music player and online song store – the iPod and iTunes – when Sony, a rival with the assets to do the same, simply couldn’t deliver in the same way.
Making Apple into an integrated whole meant divisions and departments were not competing against each other and wasting effort pulling in different directions. All effort was aligned under Jobs’ leadership and employees were able to spend less time worrying about each other or department-specific budgets, and more time concentrating on creating the products and services that delivered Apple’s goals.
Jobs also took an integrated approach to hiring. “When we hire someone, even if they’re going to be in marketing, I will have them talk to the design folks and the engineers,” Isaacson quotes Jobs as saying.
Integration extended to the whole product experience. Jobs thought about every detail from the packaging of a product to the advertising to even the retail experience – the first Apple Store opened in 2001. By controlling the whole process from product manufacture to marketing to sales, Jobs was able to ensure customers got a joined-up experience of Apple.
The result of all this integration was not only…
…products that were intuitive and easy to use but also meant Apple was able to sell a lifestyle, not mere appliances – generating greater levels of brand loyalty and triggering a halo effect between products where an iPod owner became an iPhone owner who then bought a Mac.
7. HR: Don’t suffer any “bozos”
For all the praise heaped on Jobs, Apple was not the work of just one man. Jobs made sure of that by hiring many highly talented engineers, designers, marketers and managers to work with him and deliver his vision. His hiring philosophy was not to suffer any fools at all.
“His goal was to be vigilant against ‘the bozo explosion’ that leads to a company being larded with second-rate talent,” writes Isaacson of Jobs. This task was made easier by Jobs having an undeniable “eye for talent” – and, evidently, a nose for a bozo.
Isaacson quotes Jobs talking about his approach to hiring being to only hire “A players” because, he reasoned, such highly talented people want to only work with other highly talented people. By this logic, employing a B player makes it easier for a C player to get in the door, and that’s bad news since A players don’t want to work with C players.
To maintain the calibre of his ‘A team’, Jobs did not shy away from firing a lot of people who did not meet his exacting standards. For example, when Apple’s original cloud services offering, MobileMe, failed to deliver the expected quality of service, Jobs fired the leader of the team. Isaacson quotes Fortune‘s Adam Lashinsky on Apple’s corporate culture: “Accountability is strictly enforced.”
8. Meetings: Love them – but hate PowerPoint
Keeping on top of all the detail meant Jobs took part in a lot of meetings – including an executive staff session every Monday and a marketing meeting every Wednesday. But with Jobs’ refusal to brook bozos and his love of plain-speaking, these meetings were not like your average office meeting.
Jobs liked meeting participants to be in the moment, having a real conversation – not passively watching a screen. Just as Jobs’ communication style was direct in order to get results, his philosophy on meetings was that they should have tangible results.
Isaacson quotes Jobs laying into PowerPoint: “I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at a table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.”
Jobs was not anti-props in meetings entirely, but the props he favoured were…
…the actual physical objects being talked about so that participants could “feel, inspect and fondle” the objects they were making decisions on. Meetings for Jobs were true meetings of minds, where ideas could be rubbed together and grow stronger as a result – about as far away from the empty office ritual of cliché as it’s possible to get.
9. Negotiating? Take a long walk…
One of Jobs’ favourite negotiating tactics was to ask his interlocutor to take a walk – allowing Jobs to make his pitch on the move and impart a bit of extra dynamism to the talks. Walking and talking also generates a sense of shared experience and can foster a closer bond which helped give Jobs an edge in tricky negotiation situations, such as when he was trying to woo John Sculley to join Apple from Pepsi.
Isaacson writes how the pair walked all over New York, taking in Central Park, the Met Museum, Broadway, 49th Street, San Remo and a penthouse apartment on 74th which Jobs planned to buy.
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Jobs asked at the climax of their negotiations. Sculley didn’t stand a chance.
Jobs also used a walk to soften the blow when asking Markkula to resign from the Apple board. Isaacon quotes Markkula describing the event: “He told me he wanted a new board because he wanted to start fresh… He was worried that I might take it poorly, and he was relieved when I didn’t.”
Jobs also used walks to clear his own head and help him reach a decision at the rare times when he was having difficulty deciding something – such as whether or not he should drop the ‘interim’ prefix from his CEO title at Apple and become a bona fide CEO.
10. What’s next? Think about tomorrow today
Every year, Jobs took a group of his most valued Apple employees on a retreat – known as The Top 100 – where the discussion would be focused on what the company should do next. At one retreat in 2001, Isaacson describes how Jobs started off asking what 10 things Apple should do next.
“People would fight to get their suggestions on the list,” he writes. “Jobs would write them down, and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of 10. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, ‘We can only do three’.”
But focused future-gazing was not just an annual event at Apple. For Jobs, every working week started with a three- or four-hour discussion about tomorrow’s world. “The key venue for freewheeling discourse was the Monday morning executive team gathering,” Isaacson writes. “The focus was always on the future: What should each product do next? What new things should be developed?”
Jobs had always had his eye on the future, right from Apple’s fledgling years. Pitching the company to a programmer he was trying to hire in those early years, he said in typically hyperbolic terms: “We are inventing the future… Come down here and make a dent in the universe.”
This preoccupation with the future, with innovation, allowed Jobs to keep Apple relevant – whether it was building desktop PCs, digital music players or mobile phones. But asking what Apple should do next was a very Jobsian way of innovating, still tightly focused on Apple’s capabilities and on the next thing in the chain. By eyeballing product development in this focused fashion, he ensured the company did not upset its current capabilites by diluting its future efforts across too broad a horizon.