After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography, “Steve Jobs,” The Marketing Id has come to the conclusion that Steve Jobs was the real “iMan” after all. Maybe not the original “I-man”–that title probably still belongs to Don Imus of morning talk radio/TV. In any case, I thought it would be useful to try and glean a few marketing and management lessons from Mr. Isaacson’s refreshingly candid book.
Before I begin, it might be worth reliving my own brief encounter with Steve Jobs from a long time ago. It was either in late 1988 or early 1989 at the launch of his NeXT computer in New York City. This was before Steve Jobs became really famous for his meticulous launch events that would later evolve, upon his return to Apple in 1997, into spectacular shows. Nonetheless, the then 33-year old Steve put on a pretty decent show for the NeXT launch in NYC and curiously had a workstation setup on either side of the stage. In keeping true to Murphy’s Law, the workstation on the right side of the stage unexpectedly froze in the middle of the demo! Before most in the audience could realize it, Steve Jobs calmly continued to talk as he glided over to the left side of the stage and seamlessly picked up on the demo as if there had been no problem. After the presentation, as Steve Jobs was exiting stage left, I rushed into the aisle and was one of the many adoring fans, who got to shake his hand as I muttered to him, “That was awesome!” Steve stared directly into my eyes and replied very matter-of-factly, “Then why don’t you go out and get one.” It struck me at that time – always a salesman! Yet, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I could not afford its $6500 price tag. Isaacson brings out this perennial salesman trait as a standout in Steve Jobs’ personality throughout his book, noting that he concluded every launch event with the salesman clincher phrase “and one more thing.” But Steve, as Isaacson notes towards the end of the book, was wary of salesmen, especially when they landed up becoming CEOs–his self-induced experience at Apple with the hiring of salesman John Sculley from Pepsi had left a deep scar which never healed!
Steve Jobs’ life could well be summed up in a famous claim attributed to Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Because, in reading Isaacson’s book, one gets the impression that Steve Jobs in his relatively short life seemed to be in a rush to “change the world.” By mastering the art of marrying creativity and engineering, he adapted cutting-edge technologies to simplify life for mankind. In doing so, as Isaacson points out, Steve Jobs transformed (conquered, if you will) six major industries:
- Personal computers
- Animated movies
- Tablet computing
- Digital publishing
While the impact of these transformations were significantly greater in the B2C world of movies, music and phones; he also created enormous trend-setting influences in the B2B domain of computers and digital publishing.
In keeping with the Julius Caesar metaphors, I am reminded of another great quote from Shakespeare’s play on the life of the Roman emperor, in which Mark Antony grieves after Caesar has been slain, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” In reading Isaacson’s book, I got the impression that the reverse of this quote was true in the case of Steve Jobs – some of the “evil” personality traits that Steve displayed during his short life will soon be forgotten, but the tremendous good that his professional endeavors bestowed upon the world will live on forever.
Isaacson made much about Steve Jobs and his “Reality Distortion Field (RDF).” Every time I came across this nebulous concept in the book, I couldn’t help think that by definition “reality distortion” is an oxymoron. RDF is a mind-bending exercise that is typically associated with people who experiment with hallucinogens and/or practice intensive meditative techniques. Steve indulged in both of these activities and this probably convinced him that he had the will power to make subordinates and colleagues achieve the impossible. But as the old saying goes, “it takes two to tango,” and Steve couldn’t have been a leader of the RDF cult, if he did not have willing followers. The bottom line is Steve used RDF for the public good – he led them to create insanely good products and did not get them to just drink the Kool-Aid. In any event, this is not a management style that I would recommend because it is not one that can be taught–some chosen few are born with it and Steve Jobs was one of them.
From a marketing standpoint, if there is a single most appealing characteristic of Steve Jobs that stands out in Isaacson’s book, it is the one that gave him an ability to so seamlessly intersect art and engineering in a superior fashion, which can be seen in every product from the first Macintosh to the last iPad. Steve’s mind naturally converged its logical left brain and creative right brain activities and thus enabled him to gracefully connect the complex with the simple. More importantly, he imbued his “think different” philosophy into every product using the KISS – Keep it Small & Simple – standard that required every user experience to be as intuitive and simple as possible, even when it meant integrating very sophisticated hardware and software to make it happen.
The flip side of Steve’s KISS was an insistence on providing a tightly-controlled, end-to-end user experience, which required him to manage a very vertically-integrated company. In the age of the internet and open systems, this was a rather contrarian approach. But, as Isaacson points out with several instances in the book, Steve did display some very contradictory traits–both, on the personal side and in his professional behavior. Nonetheless, these contradictions did not prevent him from achieving what he set out to do. Again, this is a characteristic that cannot be acquired and probably not a management style that ordinary people would be able to pull off. But Steve did!
Steve was not only opposed to a horizontally-fragmented, decentralized company structure, but also adopted a very collaborative management style to boot–it involved all functional departments at all stages of the concept-to-launch cycle. This operating style enabled him to tinker, change and even scrap late-stage designs and start over, if the perfectionist in him was not satisfied with the way a product/service was turning out. Steve defied conventional product marketing methods and, in fact, did not believe in traditional market research. Again, this methodology had a better chance of succeeding in the “build it and they will come” naiveté of the B2C world, but would be more difficult to pull off in the stricter demands of the B2B world. It probably explains why Steve was wildly successful in the B2C industries and to a lesser degree in the B2B sectors.
If there is one big disappointment that I had with Isaacson’s book, especially because it was rushed to print barely three weeks after Steve Jobs’ passing, is that it did not contain an epilogue to cover the tragic event. It would have been befitting for Isaacson to have mentioned Steve’s sister, Mona Simpson’s stirring eulogy at his funeral where she revealed that Steve’s final words were: “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.” It would have been the perfect ending to a remarkable life. But since Isaacson failed to do so, I will keep with my analogies from “Julius Caesar” and end my own review with this parting quote from Shakespeare,
“…and the elements So mixed in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’”
 The Marketing Id wanted to go with “we” here but, in remaining true to the subject matter, first person singular seems apt