Steve Jobs’ “wilderness years” in exile from Apple, the focus of a recent article and upcoming biopic, offer a blueprint for struggling companies looking to reinvent themselves.
A Fast Company article by Brent Schlender draws on archived interviews with Jobs. In the process of unearthing the transcripts and tapes and listening to his conversations with Jobs, Schlender realized the Apple guru’s “lost years” of 1985 to 1996 were pivotal for the company’s blockbuster years. During those years, Jobs was exiled from Apple and struggled with new business ventures and raising a family, before heading back into the fold after Apple’s fortunes took a turn for the worse.
Here are some key business lessons Jobs learned the hard way — ones that a few companies could take notes from now as they struggle to regain their footing in the industry:
Learn From Your Mistakes
“I don’t really believe that televisions and computers are going to merge.” – Steve Jobs, 1998
Jobs made a lot of mistakes during his wilderness years, but managed to extract lessons he would take to his next venture. At NeXT, his first computer company after Apple, he introduced a radical “open company” policy, complete with public, evenly distributed salaries. Employees did not like the model, and the corporate culture became conniving, with employees cutting side deals to make more money. He also became so caught up in making a beautiful computer that his first model took two years to deliver and was far too expensive for commercial success.
Jobs learned from both errors. He moved away from NeXT’s salary structure in his other ventures. And he turned the product focus to less costly software, which eventually gave him enough money to buy his way back into Apple. Once at Apple, he believed computers would be the sole product, not anticipating the rise of mp3 players and smartphones he would eventually orchestrate. His early lessons recognizing his mistakes likely allowed Jobs to see when he was being short-sighted and re-adjust his perspective.
Treat Your Talent like the Most Important Thing in Your Company
“The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.” – Steve Jobs, 1995
When Jobs bought Pixar, he found a kindred spirit in John Lasseter, the “user interface designer” who became Pixar’s creative backbone. Pixar initially sold images to special effects teams and medical imaging companies, but Jobs realized the staff really wanted to make original animated films. Even though it was a high-risk strategy, he decided to let them: the first film was “Toy Story.”
Jobs’ relationship with Lasseter paralleled his partnership at Apple with designer Jonathan Ive, and Jobs encouraged both men to follow their intuition and aesthetic vision. And for both teams, Jobs switched to an incentive-based payment model, urging members to care about building their companies.
Of course, Jobs fired half the Pixar staff before switching to original animation, so the lesson comes with a caveat: Prioritize your staff, but only the essential members.
Make One Product You Would Be Excited to Buy Instead of Four You Don’t Care Much About
“If there’s anything that parallels Apple’s decade-long string of hits — iMac, PowerBook, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, to list just the blockbusters — it’s Pixar’s string of winners, including Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, and Up.” – Brent Schlender on Jobs’ approach to products
Jobs took this approach at Pixar, and brought it to Apple when he returned in 1996. In addition to firing staff, Jobs also prioritized streamlining the product roster. He put all the company’s energy and resources into creating one beautiful product at a time, trimming away unnecessary ventures to hone in on making something great. Jobs asked Pixar employees to make films he would take his family to see, and at Apple, he strove to make devices he would want to use.
Who Should Be Taking Notes
Perhaps HTC is taking a page from Jobs’ book by cutting back their product line to focus on the One series. And Research in Motion, which also ousted founding members and is experiencing a decline not unlike Apple’s in the 1990s, may want to take a closer look at the lessons Jobs took with him from his darker days to relaunch Apple into the global juggernaut it is today.