is saga is the entrepreneurial creation myth writ large: Steve Jobs cofounded Apple in his parents' garage in 1976, was ousted in 1985, returned to rescue it from near bankruptcy in 1997, and by the time he died, in October 2011, had built it into the world's most valuable company. Along the way he helped to transform seven industries: personal computing, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, retail stores, and digital publishing. He thus belongs in the pantheon of America's great innovators, along with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. None of these men was a saint, but long after their personalities are forgotten, history will remember how they applied imagination to technology and business.
"The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."
—Apple's "Think Different" commercial, 1997
In the months since my biography of Jobs came out, countless commentators have tried to draw management lessons from it. Some of those readers have been insightful, but I think that many of them (especially those with no experience in entrepreneurship) fixate too much on the rough edges of his personality. The essence of Jobs, I think, is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business. He acted as if the normal rules didn't apply to him, and the passion, intensity, and extreme emotionalism he brought to everyday life were things he also poured into the products he made. His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism.
One of the last times I saw him, after I had finished writing most of the book, I asked him again about his tendency to be rough on people. "Look at the results," he replied. "These are all smart people I work with, and any of them could get a top job at another place if they were truly feeling brutalized. But they don't." Then he paused for a few moments and said, almost wistfully, "And we got some amazing things done." Indeed, he and Apple had had a string of hits over the past dozen years that was greater than that of any other innovative company in modern times: iMac, iPod, iPod nano, iTunes Store, Apple Stores, MacBook, iPhone, iPad, App Store, OS X Lion—not to mention every Pixar film. And as he battled his final illness, Jobs was surrounded by an intensely loyal cadre of colleagues who had been inspired by him for years and a very loving wife, sister, and four children.
So I think the real lessons from Steve Jobs have to be drawn from looking at what he actually accomplished. I once asked him what he thought was his most important creation, thinking he would answer the iPad or the Macintosh. Instead he said it was Apple the company. Making an enduring company, he said, was both far harder and more important than making a great product. How did he do it? Business schools will be studying that question a century from now. Here are what I consider the keys to his success.
When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was producing a random array of computers and peripherals, including a dozen different versions of the Macintosh. After a few weeks of product review sessions, he'd finally had enough. "Stop!" he shouted. "This is crazy." He grabbed a Magic Marker, padded in his bare feet to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid. "Here's what we need," he declared. Atop the two columns, he wrote "Consumer" and "Pro." He labeled the two rows "Desktop" and "Portable." Their job, he told his team members, was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. All other products should be canceled. There was a stunned silence. But by getting Apple to focus on making just four computers, he saved the company. "Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do," he told me. "That's true for companies, and it's true for products."
After he righted the company, Jobs began taking his "top 100" people on a retreat each year. On the last day, he would stand in front of a whiteboard (he loved whiteboards, because they gave him complete control of a situation and they engendered focus) and ask, "What are the 10 things we should be doing next?" People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down—and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of 10. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, "We can only do three."
Focus was ingrained in Jobs's personality and had been honed by his Zen training. He relentlessly filtered out what he considered distractions. Colleagues and family members would at times be exasperated as they tried to get him to deal with issues—a legal problem, a medical diagnosis—they considered important. But he would give a cold stare and refuse to shift his laserlike focus until he was ready.
Near the end of his life, Jobs was visited at home by Larry Page, who was about to resume control of Google, the company he had cofounded. Even though their companies were feuding, Jobs was willing to give some advice. "The main thing I stressed was focus," he recalled. Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up, he told Page. "It's now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they're dragging you down. They're turning you into Microsoft. They're causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great." Page followed the advice. In January 2012 he told employees to focus on just a few priorities, such as Android and Google+, and to make them "beautiful," the way Jobs would have done.
Jobs's Zenlike ability to focus was accompanied by the related instinct to simplify things by zeroing in on their essence and eliminating unnecessary components. "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication," declared Apple's first marketing brochure. To see what that means, compare any Apple software with, say, Microsoft Word, which keeps getting uglier and more cluttered with nonintuitive navigational ribbons and intrusive features. It is a reminder of the glory of Apple's quest for simplicity.
Jobs learned to admire simplicity when he was working the night shift at Atari as a college dropout. Atari's games came with no manual and needed to be uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out. The only instructions for its Star Trek game were: "1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons." His love of simplicity in design was refined at design conferences he attended at the Aspen Institute in the late 1970s on a campus built in the Bauhaus style, which emphasized clean lines and functional design devoid of frills or distractions.
When Jobs visited Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center and saw the plans for a computer that had a graphical user interface and a mouse, he set about making the design both more intuitive (his team enabled the user to drag and drop documents and folders on a virtual desktop) and simpler. For example, the Xerox mouse had three buttons and cost $300; Jobs went to a local industrial design firm and told one of its founders, Dean Hovey, that he wanted a simple, single-button model that cost $15. Hovey complied.
Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity. Achieving this depth of simplicity, he realized, would produce a machine that felt as if it deferred to users in a friendly way, rather than challenging them. "It takes a lot of hard work," he said, "to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions."
In Jony Ive, Apple's industrial designer, Jobs met his soul mate in the quest for deep rather than superficial simplicity. They knew that simplicity is not merely a minimalist style or the removal of clutter. In order to eliminate screws, buttons, or excess navigational screens, it was necessary to understand profoundly the role each element played. "To be truly simple, you have to go really deep," Ive explained. "For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it's manufactured."
During the design of the iPod interface, Jobs tried at every meeting to find ways to cut clutter. He insisted on being able to get to whatever he wanted in three clicks. One navigation screen, for example, asked users whether they wanted to search by song, album, or artist. "Why do we need that screen?" Jobs demanded. The designers realized they didn't. "There would be times when we'd rack our brains on a user interface problem, and he would go, 'Did you think of this?'" says Tony Fadell, who led the iPod team. "And then we'd all go, 'Holy shit.' He'd redefine the problem or approach, and our little problem would go away." At one point Jobs made the simplest of all suggestions: Let's get rid of the on/off button. At first the team members were taken aback, but then they realized the button was unnecessary. The device would gradually power down if it wasn't being used and would spring to life when reengaged.
Likewise, when Jobs was shown a cluttered set of proposed navigation screens for iDVD, which allowed users to burn video onto a disk, he jumped up and drew a simple rectangle on a whiteboard. "Here's the new application," he said. "It's got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says 'Burn.' That's it. That's what we're going to make."
In looking for industries or categories ripe for disruption, Jobs always asked who was making products more complicated than they should be. In 2001 portable music players and ways to acquire songs online fit that description, leading to the iPod and the iTunes Store. Mobile phones were next. Jobs would grab a phone at a meeting and rant (correctly) that nobody could possibly figure out how to navigate half the features, including the address book. At the end of his career he was setting his sights on the television industry, which had made it almost impossible for people to click on a simple device to watch what they wanted when they wanted.