Steve Jobs (SG) is an authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, a past Chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time Magazine. Isaacson authored biographies on Einstein, Franklin and others. He writes in the style of an on-air news report, simply recounting the facts in lucid, laconic, largely stolid prose, stripping Jobs of all pretensions, a veritable dissection and post mortem of Jobs’ mind, character, idiosyncrasies and genius. If you want to under Apple, the world’s largest company in market value in 2012, the life of its idiocyncratic founder, Steve Jobs, this book is for you.
According to Isaacson, Jobs repeatedly asked him (Isaacson) to do Job’s biography, telling Isaacson that he (Jobs) not only didn’t want to edit it, he didn’t want to influence it in any way or to even read it before it was published or possibly ever, and, apparently, Jobs never did read it. As such, Isaacson enjoyed unlimited license to expose whatever warts and other negatives that he wished. Happily for Jobs and the readers, Isaacson reveals no axe to grind, no jealousy, no affection, no contempt or even any opinion. He simply recites the facts, a classic autopsy on what made Jobs tick. As such, if such a genius interests you, you’ll enjoy this book.
By the end of it, the reader respects Jobs and applauds his many achievements, of course, but many will not like him nor would they have sought his company on a social basis. What are some of the principal things that we learn about Jobs?
He was an illegitimate child who adored his “real” parents who adopted him, a high school dropout who went to India to become a Zen Buddhist, a vegetarian, an incipient mendicant, but was also a patent genius, a loner, irascible, choleric, mercurial, a megalomaniac, manic depressive, entertaining, kind, cruel, selfish and selfless, an intensely focused workaholic, a romantic and afraid to be romantic, a control freak who was sometimes indecisive, a mass of contradictions, or “a teddy bear inside”, depending on the day, weather, the other person, the latest events. A hippie at heart, he rarely bathed and had to be cajoled to do so, lest his odors drive people away in droves. He didn’t smoke or drink and was a vegan who consumed no dairy products either, and he lived with effectively no furniture in his homes; preferring to sit on the floor, Indian style. A charismatic mesmerist, he could charm those he loathed and eviscerate those he loved, but he could spot and attract great talent and fostered a culture of collaboration within Apple, even though, when times were tough, he could fire people with impunity and without severance. Like Kissenger, Isaacson notes, Jobs often avoided the truth, not to advance his interests, but because it was part of his nature. His attitude to wealth was complex. He was an anti-materialistic hippie who capitalized on the innovations of a friend who wanted to give them away for free, and he was a Zen devotee who made a pilgrimage to India and then decided that his calling was to create a business. But, he didn’t allow a craving for profits to take precedence over his passion for building great products, but he did admonish staff to “Think profit.” He searched for people who were creatively, wickedly smart and somewhat rebellious, and he expected others to do the impossible, and, when they failed, he was often almost inhumanly cruel to them in very public ways.
Neither a hardware or software specialist, he was a visionary who seemed to able to anticipate what the public wanted. Jobs believed, and proved, that the public doesn’t know what it wants until it is shown to them. As he cynically asked, “Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone? This explains the relatively slow growth of most great innovations: electric power, the phonograph, radio, television, cable TV, cellular telephone, etc. Scully said, he seemed more a showman than a businessman. Every move seemed calculated, as if it was rehearsed, to create an occasion of the moment. His 1983 Olympics add would eventually be selected as the greatest commercial of all time. Over time, Steve Jobs became the grand master of product launches. He was proud of his failures, as he gave them credit for his later successes. He believed that it is crucial, now and then, to roll the dice and bet the company.
The enormity of his achievements are revealed by the fact that began Apple in a garage in 1969, and he left or was forced to leave Apple in 1985 and didn’t return until 1995 and the only part time; in his absence, he created NeXT and Pixar. By his death in 2011, Apple is the only company that “owns the whole widget, the hardware, the software and the operating system”; it revolutionized the music business, the book business, the computer business, and its “i” products (iPod, iPad, iPhone and their myriad imitators) have revolutionized consumer habits, Apple has become and remains, the world’s largest company, in market cap, and its stores have broken most retail records; for example, Apple’s NYC store received fifty thousand visitors a week during its’ first year (Gateway’s was 250). It grossed more per square foot than any store in the world, more in total absolute dollars than any store in NYC. When designing the iPad, Jobs said, “Make the screen five inches by eight inches, and you’ll rule the world.” As musician-Bono said, “The devil here is a bunch of creative minds… The lead singer is Steve Jobs. These men have designed the most beautiful art object in music culture since the electric guitar. That’s the iPod.” As T.S. Eliot noted, a shadow comes between conception and creation. In the annals of innovation, new ideas are only part of the equation. Execution is just as important. His main demand was always to “simplify”.
Jobs did not organize Apple into semiautonomous divisions; he closely controlled all of his teams and pushed them to work as one cohesive and flexible company, with one profit-and-loss bottom line. One of Job’s business rules was never to be afraid of cannibalizing yourself. If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.
Jobs could overcome adversity as well. When Microsoft copied what Apple invented, with its release of Windows 95, Apple’s Mac sales collapsed. In 1996, Apple’s share of the computer market had fallen from 16% to 4%, and its stock had fallen from $70 to $14, and bankruptcy seemed on the horizon. Jobs’ NeXT was simultaneously failing, but Jobs sold it to Apple for $400M. Apple wanted Jobs back and began courting him fiercely. Jobs resisted but finally took the post of “interim CEO”, called “iCEO”, and Apple’s resurgence began in earnest – with “cool” Apple Stores and the iProducts. Jobs worked for $1 a year with no stock options for several years, while simultaneously running Pixar as well. Eventually, Jobs asked for access to a Gulfstream 4 plus options on 20M Apple shares. At his death, Jobs was believed to be worth around $7 Billion, but, we must remember, he “didn’t do it for the money”, and he wasn’t kidding.
Key staff summarized Jobs as “very impetuous and very difficult” but his “vision was compelling . . . He told us ‘The journey is the reward’ and that turned out to be true.” But Jobs’ best epitaph is likely his Stanford Commencement address, which can be found online, and is worth your attention. A snippet from the book follows: “Today I want to tell you three stories of my life The first was dropping out of Reed college., The second was about getting fired by Apple. The third was being diagnosed with cancer. All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment of failure—these things just fall away in the face of death. Death is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”