Steve's Seven Insights for 21st Century Capitalists
Herewith, without further ado, a minor eulogy for Steve Jobs the CEO. When you look at the global economy today, here's what might strike you: Apple is an organization almost singularly unlike the massed hordes and would-be contenders to the throne that surround it. It is the one company seemingly tuned to hit the revolutionary apex, not race past the lowest common denominator. So how did Steve — after a legendary decade in the wilderness, exiled from the island of his own creation, watching it turn grey, dull, bland, and colonized, perhaps even lobotomized — rebuild it that way?
I looked through this excellent compendium of Jobs quotes and found seven lessons for people and companies looking to succeed as 21st century capitalists.
Matter. "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water — or do you want to change the world?" That's what Steve famously asked John Sculley. Translation: do you really want to spend your days slaving over work that fails to inspire, on stuff that fail to count, for reasons that fail to touch the soul of anyone?
Master. "Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works." Whatever your domain, you have to appreciate Apple's impact on the field of design. Apple built a mastery of design so deep, it reshaped the entire field. Would you say the Gap's reshaped textiles? Would you say McDonald's has reshaped nutrition? Nope and nope.
Do the insanely great. "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." We're awash in a sea of the tedious, the humdrum, the predictable. If your goal is rising head and shoulders above this twisting mass of mediocrity, then it's not enough, anymore, to tack on another 99 features every month and call it "innovation." Just do great work.
Have taste. "The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste." Great work doesn't just require legions of beancounters, or armies of willing muscle — it requires the capacity to make cultural judgments: in a word, taste. I don't mean to be rude (though I do mean to be impertinent) but if the opposite of taste is tackiness, then I'd say: we might just be approaching the tackiest point in history known to man. In a world where customer service can barely pronounce your name (and you theirs), a world where big-box stores barely even bother to tidy up the over-crammed shelves, a world where things get cheaper and cheaper — but look and feel like they were dreamt up by the dream team of Frankenstein, Simon Cowell, and the Wolfpack — a tiny morsel of taste is probably a competitive superweapon.
Build a temple. "Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do." If you have the audacity to do great work, then it probably deserves a home worthy of its title — not a doghouse. Putting great work in a big box store is a bit like the legendary Ferran Adria, arguably the world's most creative chef, deciding to serve his groundbreaking tour de forces of molecular gastronomy at KFC: it might get the job done, but people are going to gulp it and chomp it, rather than savor it, revel in it — and value it. The nuances, complexities, attention to detail, inspiration, and artistry inherent in great work need temples: places and spaces where they can be explored, investigated, discovered — where people can be delighted, surprised, and amazed. Think of it as a tale of economic complementarities, that works both ways: if you want to know why the Sony Style store doesn't work, the reason's simple: the work isn't great; it's an empty temple. The Apple Store's one of the most successful retail spaces in the modern economy — a testament to the power not merely of great work, or cutting edge design, but giving people beautiful spaces in which to want to actually spend time enjoying all the above. Imagine that.
Don't build a casino. "The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting. The cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament." This one's easy in principle — but difficult in practice. To illustrate: guess how much debt Apple has? Zero. Not as in "a few million," but as in: "not a single penny." In an era where it's harder and harder to resist the voluptuous temptations of glittering casino capitalism, Apple did in practice what most companies struggle and strain to — it built an enterprise so solidly managed financially it might as well have been a fortress. Steve wasn't in it to win the alarms-blaring jackpot — his goal was to create stuff that endured.
Don't pander — better. "We didn't build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves." It's the received wisdom that Steve never listened to his customers — and he'd often make a point of saying so. But how many other CEOs do you know that were listening so intently that they responded to the average fanboy's (or troll's) emails? Steve's goal in paying obsessive attention to all things Apple wasn't merely to "listen" but to discern people's wildest expectations, and then firmly take a quantum leap past them, instead of merely discovering the lowest-common-denominator of what people wanted most today, and then pandering to it. Leapfrogging your customers means creating new markets, not just new products. And Apple's created (or rejuvenated) market after market by applying the logic above.
Those aren't the only lessons, nor probably the best lessons. Just a quick reflection on my own. You might arguably conclude: Steve took on the challenge of proving that the art of enterprise didn't have to culminate in a stagnant pond of unenlightenment — and won. In doing so, he might just have built something approximating the modern world's most dangerously enlightened company. Can you?