Business

What Silicon Valley refuses to learn from Steve Jobs

Just about every tech leader in Silicon Valley says they admire Steve Jobs, but when it comes to following his lead, where’s the love?

Visit any hacker hangout, tech firm, or investment company in Silicon Valley, and you’re sure to hear people say how much they admire Steve Jobs. They’ll say that he was the most effective CEO, the best innovator, the strongest motivator, the most ruthless negotiator, and the person with the clearest vision in the valley of where tech is going. Sure, he stepped on people’s toes, and sometimes was unfair to coworkers, but what counts is how successful he was, right?

I first met Steve in a humanities seminar at Reed College. We were discussing the Parthenon frieze, and Steve told me my opinion was full of shit. This seventeen-year-old with the shock of scruffy hair, who looked like he had been sleeping on a couch (which he probably was), told me that if I wanted to understand art, I needed to get out in the world. He was shaming me to reject received ideas and to think for myself, and he seemed willing to kick my ass to get me to do it.

It is this attitude that Jobs turned into a creed and brand at Apple, epitomized by the “To the crazy ones” commercial and the famous 1984 launch ad for the Macintosh. It is easy to admire and pay lip service to Steve Jobs’ rebel image, but why do so few in the valley today follow Steve’s lead, and why are his most important lessons largely ignored by the people who claim to admire him?

Lesson #1 — Creating great products requires patience

Steve was known to chasten product teams with instructions to chuck everything and start over. The cost was high to Apple, but the result was that Apple succeeded when others failed. Microsoft had tablet hardware and software years before Apple, but it took Apple’s iPad to make the category mainstream. Other companies may offer more features in their products, and release them sooner, but user satisfaction studies show that consumers often prefer Apple’s solutions.

In an era when most follow the lean doctrine of releasing a product early, and letting the market dictate product direction, Steve spent time refining the product internally until he felt it was ready to release. That requires time that most companies don’t want, or can’t afford to invest. Steve’s approach took vision—and yes, arrogance— to think he knew better than others, plus the willingness to look beyond the horizon and envision products that customers did not know they needed yet.

Lesson #2 —  Think big

What would Steve think of today’s timorous innovators creating the umpteenth find-your-friends app, social sharing site, or cloud storage solution? For every Elon Musk who makes tackling three big, crazy ideas before breakfast seem easy, there are thousands of others who come to the valley to launch any project that an investor will put money into, worthwhile or not. Steve dared to shake things up, and thinking small was not part of his character.

Lesson #3 — Focus on your strengths

Many admire how successfully Steve cut projects and saved Apple when he returned as interim CEO in 1997. Steve learned a few things while he was exiled from Apple, and when he returned he focused the company on what Apple was good at and would attract customers back to the company. That required knowing his own and his company’s strengths and weaknesses, and understanding Apple’s customers. Yet, we still see companies squander energy and resources in too many directions. They should revisit 1997 and learn from Steve’s example.

Lesson #4 — Think different

When it comes to people per square mile trying to profit from others’ success, Silicon Valley rivals the heydays of the California Gold Rush. You can’t throw a USB flash drive in the Valley without hitting someone who wants to advise you, mentor you, teach you to code or pitch, or tighten up your growth hacking skills. Steve would tell you that listening to others is the route to mediocrity. You can’t “think different” when you’re taking your lead from the same people as everyone else.

Lesson #5 — Technology by itself is not enough

This is where we in Silicon Valley most fail Steve. Steve was a college dropout, but he valued learning and culture, and applied what he knew of music, calligraphy, design, and architecture to projects at Apple.

Today, young programmers and entrepreneurs in the valley are encouraged to drop out of college, or not pursue higher education at all, so they can focus all their attention on writing code or learning how to run a company. What value is Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Manet to someone who spends twenty hours a day on a computer? Apple’s products are beautiful to many because they are not only useful, but strive for something transcendent in their design and concept. The products might not always achieve that, but the effort reminds people of their own dreams.

As Steve said at the iPad 2 launch in March of 2011, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology, married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

If Steve were around today, he’d kick our ass.

Rod Bauer is a principal of the Bauer Group, a consultancy that works with established and startup companies to develop and execute marketing strategies. 


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31 comments
Matt Timberlake
Matt Timberlake

Steve  Jobs fundamentally changed four huge industries: the personal computer, music, retail, and movies. I might be missing one. He is hands down the most successful CEO of the latter half of the twentieth century. (I'm assuming we agree that you don't measure CEO success by personal net worth.)

So while I wouldn't have wanted to be his bro or date him, I'd sure as hell liked to have worked with him. However difficult that might have been at times.

Great piece from Bauer, who I believe also knew Bill Gates pretty well. ;>)

Krypton Aborigine
Krypton Aborigine

Silicon Valley is a little better than the New York Valley. Ever wonder that this whole thing started in the East, IBM, XEROX, WANG me all EAST so the keyboard Atari, Kaypro all east dude

Luis Morais
Luis Morais

The very question “what would Steve Jobs think about…” is a non-innovative question in itself. What would Karl Lagerfeld think of Steve Jobs use of turtlenecks as part of his own branding? Who cares? The very fact, that every now and then we find innovators in their TED talks dressed in turtlenecks as an attempt to mirror an icon shows we are not getting it. 


We still talk about arrogance as a tool of change without understanding the context in which this tool was used by Jobs both in right and terribly wrong ways.  We still forget the importance of Wozniak to shape and build this vision. 


In that sense, it seems we are still looking for a recipe to conform to when the recipe is: don’t conform and search for other sources of inspiration (outside IT).


It is true that whilst in the 90’s, the talk was about creating new OSs, interfaces and platforms, in the 00’s and 10’s creativity and innovation seems to be heavily tied in to apps. 


Nevertheless Apple created this world and we followed suit and conformed to this notion of innovation. In this aspect the new has become the old way of abating creativity to a set standard and platform and venture capital, where the money to create these things generally comes from, continues to crystallise the demand for easy, half-baked products to hit the market for a quick buck.


Greg O. Odum
Greg O. Odum

Steve Jobs was a visionary, which means most people will be unable to duplicate his methods.

Michael Russell
Michael Russell

You flip the switch all you like. Steve Jobs was a douche who had zero compassion for anyone not connected to him or that could do something for him. All this adulation he keeps receiving is painful. The only person deserving of this is Woz. He is the guy who actually made today's PC. smh :-/

Sun Kim
Sun Kim

Maybe you can write about the people who ignore the less and why. You illustrated the lessons beautifully, but I'm more curious about why CEOs and other companies are not embracing these lessons.

Per Bredenberg
Per Bredenberg

We can't all be Jobs, then no one is doing the job

Chung Yang
Chung Yang

I think Jobs reputation mostly from a time when he was running Apple as a young immature 20ish year old. Later in his life, he was a very different men and treated people differently. At the core of his thinking, he is unable to understand nor tolerate people who don't have passion for what they do.

James Hahn II
James Hahn II

There is a troubling shortage of stories in Venture Beat, Inc. Magazine, and on LinkedIn about what we could learn from Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk. If only there were writers brave enough to tackle this issue head-on.

Charlie Zhang
Charlie Zhang

I think it's pretty arrogant to suggest that "just about every tech leader" in Silicon Valley hasn't thought of this stuff. Most of this is common sense.


Let's be honest. These guys have thought of this. Steve Jobs was just one in six billion.

Glenn Darwis
Glenn Darwis

I agree. Being a jerk for the hell of it would've destroyed Jobs' reputation. He intuitively knew what and how things needed to be done and where to get help if he needed it.

Dave Chan
Dave Chan

Whatever, I am not going to get into a religious argument about Apple.

Sunny Clark
Sunny Clark

but the richer you are the more you don't have to deal with shitty bosses, you clearly have no clue how apple is run or you wouldn't be talking like this. Apple is organized like a small startup, it has the least hierarchy of any corporation near its size. They believe in great people having whole responsibility, this concept of Steve Jobs "just giving marching orders" is bullshit, his greatest skill was recruiting, not trying to "run everything".....All great companies do this, FaceBook only hires 1 engineer for every million users they have, thats how "organized" they are.....

Dave Chan
Dave Chan

People stay for various reasons. Apple has far more of an underdog (ironic) or religious feel to it. You can't discount that. Tons of people work for bosses that are jerks.

Tunjung Trafizap Utomo
Tunjung Trafizap Utomo

I'd like to add,that in order to justify "ends justify the means",namely honesty in a struggle to provide solution,you need to be consistent with your attitude towards the problem and the people.Steve Jobs was so consistent that while he made a lot of enemy,he also won lots of friend throughout his career

Sunny Clark
Sunny Clark

No, its honesty and its getting to a solution, if you hear something and you think its wrong, you have to be completely honest in why you think its wrong, and its the job of the other person to tell you honestly why you are wrong, its how you figure out what is the right direction. Also, all these myths about him being a jerk were when he was in his 20s, why would people stay if he was that much of a jerk, over 70% of VPs that were at apple in 97 are still there, Microsoft can't say that, neither can Google (which had yet to exist).....

Carl Lenocker
Carl Lenocker

Not sure he was a jerk for the fun of it, but think he was just trying to get shit done...

Dave Chan
Dave Chan

There is no doubt he was a brilliant and driven person. The issue I have is all the mental gymnastics people go through to justify him being a jerk. It's possible to have vision and be passionate and not treat people poorly. It's just another example of trying to say the ends justify the means.

Takeshi Young
Takeshi Young

Steve probably couldn't get a job today at most of the companies in the Valley if he were just starting out, probably not even at Apple.

James Tsorvas
James Tsorvas

Excellent article, Rod. It defines clearly the most important factors that people seem to ignore as each day passes at Silicon Valley. 

For me, the most important one is to get out there and experience the world we live in. Master the technology of people, learn as much as you can about different cultures all over the world, experience new things and don't be afraid to fail. Most significant of all, be human. In that way, you'll have the power to create incredible things.

Douglas Crets
Douglas Crets

@Sun Kim I'd reason that most leaders will refuse these lessons because to run a corporation requires a lot more manual work than any CEO has any patience to tolerate. Try to go into any enterprise with the "excuse" that you need time, or that things are not done right, and I think most people would argue those arguments away and just ask you to get your work done. 

C Yang
C Yang

@Charlie Zhang  It might seem common sense today.   But not at the time when Steve Job created Apple back in the 70s and 80s.   Remember Steve Jobs came about at a time when Silicon Valley dominated by the thinking of Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, and IBM.    So his hippie thinking was very innovative and essentially it changed Silicon Valley. 


Also The differences is this.    Steve Jobs was probably the 1. first to think about it.  2. actually acts on what he believes in.  In that case, he is indeed one in a billion.    While the rest might have  thought about it, but did nothing. 


What you think as common sense started with someone who started those line of thinking and convinced other people of his ideas.  That someone was Steve Jobs.

Rod Bauer
Rod Bauer

It's hard to judge Steve and Apple from today's perspective. The world was very different back then. Today's idea of success in Silicon Valley is very much seen through the prism of Jobs' and other tech pioneers' successes. Steve didn't think that way. He had his own idea, which sometimes is difficult to see, but it didn't revolve around money. Today, money drives most of the people in the Valley, and that is why it's difficult to find another Steve Jobs.

Rod Bauer
Rod Bauer

@Takeshi Young Agreed. Steve couldn't get hired today. He would do something out of the mainstream and not containable by a corporate structure. That's the nature of who he was, and a reason why innovation in an established culture is so difficult.

C Yang
C Yang

@Takeshi Young I think Steve Jobs would do just fine today.   He can't get a job at most companies because they are all run by copy cats.   Back in his days, it was the same way.  The world was run by Hewlett Packard, Xerox, and IBM - a very button downed culture.  Steve Job was a hippie.  He doesn't fit in.     So guess what, he went out and started his own company and filled it full of hippies and nerds who wouldn't make it at those big companies.   That company was called Apple. 


Men like Steve Jobs will still make billions today.  He is the type of personality who can thrive here in Silicon Valley.    VC heres looks for and invests in men like him.   I  certainly would put my money on him.   He has a clear idea of what he wants the world to be; he is an extremely skilled product manager and salesman; and he is tenacious enough to make things happen. 


Back in the days when he started Apple, it was virtually impossible to start a personal computer business - because there was no such thing as a personal computer business segment.  Yet he was able to go out and convince everyone that they needed one.   Not many people in this world have that skill. 



nomis ueil
nomis ueil

@Takeshi Young And that is where lies the paradox. There wouldn't be these companies without a Steve Jobs creating this community for them.