Ten Startup Tips From Steve Jobs

Steve JobsNote: This is an installment in the Iconic Advice series. Other installments include: Words of startup wisdom from Jeff Bezos

In the course of my recent interview with Guy Kawasaki, author and former Apple Evangelist, Guy describes Steve Jobs as:

“…the world’s greatest CEO, ever. He did more for Apple’s shareholders, customers and employees than any other CEO has ever done for their shareholders, customers and employees. People should not try to emulate him, because they will be setting themselves up for failure. He is a great example of…building an enchanting company.”

There are numerous reasons for Jobs’ success, not the least of which was his uncompromising pursuit of a delightful customer experience.

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An Insightful Steve Jobs Anecdote

I recently met a highly successful photojournalist, by happenstance, at a coffee shop. He overheard me talking about Steve Jobs in conjunction with the entrepreneurship class that I teach at UC Santa Barbara. The photographer (who asked that I not identify him, but was happy for me to share his story) indicated that he knew Steve. He proceeded to tell me several interesting and entertaining stories about Steve (all flattering), dating back to the early-1980’s. I shall refer to the photographer as “Mac” for the remainder of this article.

One of Mac’s stories was particularly compelling. In the summer of 1985, he was in Jobs’ office when a photographer for Fortune magazine arrived to shoot Steve for an upcoming cover. In the mid-1980’s, Mac was a notable photojournalist. At the time the Fortune photographer arrived at Apple’s headquarters, Mac had previously shot a cover photo of Jobs for Newsweek.

Steve told the gentleman from Fortune to take his time scouting a suitable location to take the photo. He implored the photographer to, “not be afraid to strive for an image that was, out of the box.” After about two hours, the photographer returned to Steve’s office announcing that he had found an ideal location for the photo shoot. Unfortunately for the photographer, he did not realize that Steve was not prone to settle for the mundane or unimaginative.

The Fortune photographer placed Steve in front of the Apple logo in the company’s lobby. Steve looked at the logo and then at the photographer and said, <obviously I am paraphrasing Mac’s recollection>, “You must be kidding me. Apple’s CEO standing in front of the Apple logo?! I won’t be part of such a mediocre effort,” at which point he walked away. He did not “storm off,” nor did he shout at the photographer. He simply stated his opinion and went about his busy day.

Once Steve departed, the photographer was visibly shaken. As a fellow photojournalist, Mac had empathy for the man from Fortune. After speaking with Jobs, Steve agreed to give the photographer another chance. The resulting photo, while not particularly imaginative, is at least a departure from the formulaic, CEO standing in the foreground of their company’s logo. 

Steve’s Startup Tips

Per the popular press’ narrative, Steve Jobs went from a technology rock star (early 1980’s) to a petulant, spoiled brat (late 1980’s), to a washed-up, has been (early 1990’s) back to a technology rock star (2001 to present). Along the way, Steve shared numerous nuggets of sage advice. I gathered ten such examples which are particularly relevant to entrepreneurs.

  1. Quality Does Not Stop At Your Product’s Faceplate

    Apple Signatures “We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.

    When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Another of Mac’s stories highlights the degree to which Steve treated his designs as works of art. Jobs gave Mac a Macintosh 128k as a gift. After using it for a number of years, Mac passed the computer on to a friend who could not afford a new one. Years later, Jobs asked Mac if he still had the Macintosh 128k. Mac proudly told him that he had given it to a friend thinking Steve would approve of his act of charity. “That’s too bad,” Steve told him, “because I signed the inside, along with the other members of my development team. The unit I gave you was one of the first Macintoshes ever produced.” <again, paraphrasing>

  1. Grinding It Out Matters

    “’I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.’ ”

As Guy Kawasaki noted in this video interview, hard work is his secret weapon. I regularly bring successful entrepreneurs into my UC Santa Barbara classroom. Far and away the most common attributes of these individuals are their stamina and willingness to do whatever it took to succeed.

  1. Love Is All You Need (When Hiring…)

    “When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself.

    They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.”

As noted in Self-effacing Entrepreneurs, seek people who will place your startup’s well-being before their own. Make it clear to your team that when your employees make decisions which are good for everyone, they are acting in their own self-interest.

  1. Getting Some Booty

    “Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?”

Although violent and cutthroat, pirates during the 17th and 18th centuries were surprisingly egalitarian. Most crews shared the booty based on each crew member’s contribution. For instance, those who were part of boarding parties were given larger shares than those who stayed behind, in order to compensate them for their risk of bodily harm.

During pirates’ glory days, caste systems were prevalent across most of Europe. As such, becoming a buccaneer was one of the only opportunities for minorities and uneducated, non-landed whites to acquire wealth. In modern times, entrepreneurship offers the same egalitarian opportunity. As noted above, if you have the adequate stamina and intelligence, you will not be denied.

  1. Knowing What To Connect

    “Creativity is just connecting things.”

As noted in Startups Are A Remix, creativity is often expressed by assembling that which has come before, in new and often surprising combinations. Startups comprised of members who apply a diversity of thought to solving problems are more likely to devise creative and inherently unique solutions. As Harvard Professor Michael Porter notes, competitive advantage is not derived by doing things, “better, faster, cheaper.” Rather, it is often the result of doing, “different things.”

  1. Knowing What Not To Connect

    “I'm as proud of what we don't do as I am of what we do.”

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

Returning to Michael Porter, “strategy isn’t what you do. It’s what you don’t do.” Knowing what not to do is far more challenging than attempting to do everything.

As noted in Go For The Quick Buck, there are times in a company’s maturation when it is forced to pursue activities that are not in its long-term interest. However, the danger with such opportunistic, short-term activities is that they derail the company from achieving its strategic goals.

  1. Money Doesn’t Lead To Happiness, But Happiness Can Lead To Money

I first heard the preceding phrase from Mark Douglas, Co-Founder and CEO of SteelHouse. I am not sure if he coined this truism, but it is undeniably true.

    “I was worth over $1,000,000 when I was 23, and over $10,000,000 when I was 24, and over $100,000,000 when I was 25, and it wasn’t that important because I never did it for the money.”

As described in Why You (And Your Employees) Have To Work, money only motivates most people to a point. Once their basic physical needs are satisfied, most people are driven by a combination of: mastery, challenge and an ability to impact a meaningful mission.

Jobs’ basic needs were more than covered with his first million dollars. It certainly is not realistic to say he never worked for the money, but he certainly did not pour his passion into Apple, NeXT and Pixar for the past 30-years in order to simply make more money. Jobs was clearly motivated by a strong desire to impact a meaningful mission, or in his words, “I want to put a ding in the universe.”

  1. Leadership Is Breaking Wind

    “The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay.”

Like Jobs, manage the obstacles that stand in your team’s way, rather than trying to manage your team. Draft the headwinds for your team so that they can focus their efforts on creating and producing, rather than battling external forces.

  1. Big Dumb Companies Are Often Just That

    “So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'” 

Just because an established leader in your industry does not see the wisdom in your ideas, do not waiver. As Clay Christensen aptly pointed out in The Innovator’s Dilemma, the very fact that they have a legacy they are forced to defend, makes it more difficult for them to assess which emerging technologies hold the most promise.

  1. It Ain’t About Life And Death

    “Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Entrepreneurs never fail, when they follow their hearts. Having the necessary courage to follow your heart is success unto itself. Steve Jobs was a success on many levels, not the least of which was his willingness to ignore conventional wisdom and follow his heart.

Image source: 1/9/07 - David Paul Morris/Getty Images News

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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