Business IQ

3 Things Steve Jobs got wrong that built his empire

Angela Allan
Technology Journalist

Angela Allan is a music and lifestyle journalist with a special interest in technology and startup culture. Angela writes for Rolling Stone and the Star Weekly

Angela Allan
Technology Journalist

Angela Allan is a music and lifestyle journalist with a special interest in technology and startup culture. Angela writes for Rolling Stone and the Star Weekly

For all his success, Steve Jobs also had his share of failures. But failure guided a lot of his success. Here’s three things that helped build his empire.

different coloured sticks arranged on surface

Steve Jobs is widely recognised as one of the seminal minds of the computer age. A polarising figure, he was known for his attention to detail, his love of design and his ability to envision what customers wanted before they even knew it. But, like everyone, he made mistakes.

He was fired, he focused on the wrong thing at times, and hired the wrong person on multiple occasions. He rode the waves of success and failure in the same way that all of us do. Here’s three mistakes he made, and how it helped shape the Apple empire.

You’re fired

Steve Jobs had been a prodigy from a young age. Between the ages of 20 and 30, he grew a $2 billion company, with thousands of employees. He’d reached the heights that many businesses only dream about. But his dogmatic pursuit of the end-users’ needs had put people off-side, and led to some catastrophic commercial failures.

The end result was that he was demoted until he was forced out. The board promoted John Sculley, the ex-president of Pepsi, and relegated Jobs to a nonexecutive role as chairman.

At his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, Jobs remarked that the ousting was a good thing.

“I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

The lesson

Entrepreneurs are renowned for suffering the hard knocks business can deliver. Stories of firing, bankruptcy and failure litter the annals of many successful business’ histories. It’s not the end. It’s an opportunity to reinvent.

Focusing on the wrong product

One of Jobs’ biggest blunders at Apple was introducing Macintosh Office – an office-wide computing environment that included Macintosh computers, a local area networking system, a file server, and a networked laser printer – instead of focusing on desktop publishing.

It was a commercial failure that led, in part, to his dismissal. But it showed him what didn’t work. And that was worth more in the long run.

He took what he’d learned from his time at Apple and applied it to the aptly titled, NeXT. NeXT went on to revolutionise the computer industry and helped popularise the Graphic User Interface – the way we use computers to this day.

The lesson

Sometimes your gut feel is wrong. Consumer trends can be fickle, so take what you learn from your mistakes and apply it to what you think is “the next big thing”.

Hiring the wrong people

“We got lost in the technology,” Jobs laments about the eventual decline of the NeXT computer.

But there was more to it than that. At NeXT, Jobs hired Peter van Cuylenburg to run the company’s day-to-day operations. In the book, Becoming Steve Jobs: How A Reckless Upstart Became A Visionary Leader, van Cuylenburg is described as being “more interested in process than products”, and clashed with Jobs’ vision – leading investors to question who was running the company.

It’s something familiar to all business owners. You can’t get it right all the time, and sometimes someone who’s extremely skilled isn’t necessarily the right person for the job.

Van Cuylenburg’s departure helped spur Jobs to re-look at the business and put the focus on software instead of hardware. NeXTSTEP – the computers operating system – would eventually become the beating heart of iOS.

The lesson

You’re going to hire the wrong person sometimes. The adage of “hire slow, fire fast” is espoused by many business leaders. Jobs’ experience shows that sometimes you don’t know what you need until you understand what you don’t.

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