What Steve Jobs Taught Me

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (Santa – take note – I have read it). It’s an authorised biography but neither Jobs nor anyone else had any editorial control, or even any foresight.

Jobs predicted he’d read it a few years after it came out. That’s not going to happen.

Let’s get something out of the way here – this is no hagiography. Jobs as a person comes out of it looking pretty bad. It’s warts-and-all and the warts are many.

He had no filter between his brain and his mouth and he knew it and he didn’t care.

But – he did amazing things and there will be few of us who do not own at least one of his products or have seen one of his movies. (I’ve seen them all.)

So, what can we learn from this book that we can apply to our businesses?

Be Lacking in Screws

This is all about product excellence. I think it applies to service as well.

Jobs was driven to make the best consumer products it was possible to make. That’s it. That’s the mission statement. He saw the early hobbyist computers as clunky, unintegrated (some didn’t even come with a box around them – they were bare exposed circuit boards, and no power supply!). Essentially unusable to anyone bar the expert hobbyist.

Later he saw PCs as bland, shoddy, cobbled together contraptions containing barely compatible components and clunky software. The user experience was poor.

It was the same with portable music players and phones…techie products made for techies where their lack of usability was almost a point of pride to their engineers.

Jobs went to unbelievable lengths to make his products feature rich, very beautiful and incredibly simple to use. And he managed it. He gave complete solutions. With no screws. You cannot get inside an Apple product and you don’t need to.

I believe Jobs was truly not interested in money. He believed that to focus on making money was the end for an organisation. It was better to focus on delivering value excellently, i.e. in Apple’s case, through truly excellent products.  And this makes sense to me because making stuff is an input that we can control. Making money is an output that is only indirectly controlled.

He did no market research because he wasn’t into incremental product development. He was into blowing the competition out of the water. He quotes Henry Ford – “if I’d asked my customers what they wanted they’d have said ‘a faster horse’.”

This allowed him to demand premium prices. Despite having only 7% of the computer market by unit sales, Apple in 2010 was pulling in 35% of the entire segment’s operating profit.

Be Intense

This is about focusing on as few projects as possible.

It was usual for the entire organisation, one of the biggest companies on earth, to be working on no more than three products at any one time.

If you are going to make the very best products you can, you can’t be developing fifty of them. Know your limits.

Be More Than Just A Protest Singer

This is about innovation.

Jobs loved Bob Dylan and he said that Dylan couldn’t sing protest songs all his life – he had to move on and he did. Innovation ran through everything Jobs did – from the Gorilla Glass screen on the iPhone to the design of the Apple Stores. From business model innovation (iTunes Store) to reinventing animated movies.

And even then, innovation sometimes only gets you so far, as the plethora of smart phones out now will show.

But not innovating is not an option.  

Be As One

This is about organisational structure.

Jobs felt Apple could get stuff done like no other company because there was no silo mentality in the organisation. He looked at Sony who had made the WalkMan and they had all the skills to make the iPod/iTunes/iTunesStore integrated product suite that has reshaped (and saved) the music industry, but they couldn’t get it together because the music and technology divisions had conflicting priorities and would not talk to each other.

Let’s remember what the word division actually means – the state of being divided.

Apple has only one P&L which is amazing for an organisation of its size. And everyone involved in product development feels an allegiance to the product, not a division.


There’s more, much more, but these are four of the major pillars upon which Apple was built. There are lessons here for a lot of us.


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5 Responses to What Steve Jobs Taught Me

  1. Clare December 5, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    more food for thought … i should be able to manage this in a small organisation…. but can i ?

    • Mark Nugent December 7, 2011 at 7:07 am #

      It takes a very firm hand to do what Jobs did and the consequence was that he was respected, rather than liked. That’s the price.

  2. Keith Plumb December 7, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    To slightly misquote Newton “Steve Jobs could see further than others because he was standing on the shoulders of giants”.

    This included some great thinkers such as Alan Turing. At least Steve recognised this by using the Apple with a bite out of it to commerate Turing’s method of committing sucide.

    Apple remains to convince me. I do not own any of their products because they fail to meet my needs. Smart phones existed before Apple and equipment like the Psion 5 and Netbook were way ahead they just did not have the finance clout.

    If you going to have a mass market product it needs to be dumbed down to the mass market so Apple is really just the Pepsi to Microsoft’s Coke (both completely undrinkable).

    After more than 100 years electronic computing devices are finally begining to get away from the QWERTY keyboard. A device invented to slow typist down so that the keys did not get snagged on a mechanical typewriter. So I am supposed to be impressed by an industry that has managed to develop at slightly faster than a snail’s pace.

    When I first encountered a personal compter in 1979 it had three boxes, a screen, a processor unit and keyboard and I am still using the same three boxes in 2011!

    The computer industry promised the paperless office – what a joke. They were supposed to have made things easier but in fact they have made it much harder. In the pharmaceutical industry it is much easier to change the hardware than the software due to the validation requirements

    Excel uses 100+ times more computer power to do the same mathematics that Lotus 123 did yet Lotus 123 would fit onto a 720 kbyte floppy disc. The only different is that an Excel spreadsheet looks prettier.

    So that is all Jobs has done for us. Dumbed it down and made it look pretty the same as another other mass marketting.

    Like Stella Artois it is reasuringly expensive and still awful. People are just dumb enough to believe the hype.

    A global “No Computers Day” would probably bring far more innovation then ever Jobs was capable of.

    • Mark Nugent December 7, 2011 at 7:03 am #

      Goodness me Keith!
      I do not own any Apple stuff (apart from an iPod) but in the last 3 months my PC experience has involved –

      1. Endless software problems
      2. A backup that won’t back up
      3. A constant rattle caused by the 3, yes 3 fans inside the box (Apple’s being fanless)
      4. A new graphics card that Windows would not recognise

      I understand that Jobs was making consumer products, i.e. they just work and you don’t look inside…which necessitates some compromise but I am not an engineer and I just want it, and my car, and the kettle, and the TV, to work. Those I know with his stuff say it works.

      • Keith Plumb January 4, 2012 at 10:48 pm #


        As I said Microsoft and Apple are just two forms of cola and both unpalatable for a number of reasons.

        Personally I much prefer Dandelion and Burdock


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