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Was there a consistent pattern to Steve Jobs’s success?
Richard Rumelt, a strategy expert, found an answer.
Rumelt had the chance to interview Steve Jobs in 1998, after Jobs had come back to Apple and turned Apple around.
He wanted to know: what was Jobs’s strategy for turning Apple around?
“Steve, this turnaround at Apple has been impressive. But everything we know about the personal-computer business says that Apple will always have a small niche position. The network externalities are just too strong to upset the de facto “Wintel” standard.
So what are you trying to do? What’s the longer-term strategy?
He just smiled and said, ‘I am going to wait for the next big thing’ … which for him was Pixar and then, in an even bigger way, the iPod.”
If we look over Steve Jobs’s career trajectory, it was a sequence of waiting for the “next big thing” – and then riding that wave.
Jobs did it in the 1970s with the rise of the personal computer, riding that wave of opportunity by releasing and selling the Apple I in 1976 and the Apple II in 1977, and the Macintosh in 1984.
Jobs did it with the rise of digitally animated movies with Pixar.
Jobs did it again with the raise of digital music and the iPod, and then again with the rise of consumer smartphones and tablets in the 2000s.
Jobs consistently operated with the same underlying strategy – wait for the next big thing … and then ride that wave.
It didn’t always work out as well as he hoped – the Lisa and Next for example weren’t the kind of successes that Jobs had envisaged.
But it worked out well enough, often enough, to make him a billionaire and a global influencer and game changer.
Was there something else at play?
If we look a little more closely at Jobs’s successes, we see that there are some other dynamics at play.
One is that, where Jobs was successful, it wasn’t just in creating technology, it was a very specific kind of technology: technology that combines design or art with useful functionality. Jobs said:
“I wanted to buy [Pixar] because I was really into computer graphics. I realized they were way ahead of the others in combining art and technology, which is what I’ve always been interested in.” (Jobs, quoted in Isaacson’s biography of Jobs)
All of Jobs’s major successes – the Apple II, the Mac, the iMac, Pixar, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad – combined art or design with making technology useful to people, or in Pixar’s case, made computer technology useful in producing art.
Jobs brought many other skills – and flaws – to his career. Some of his other key strengths included Jobs’s legendary ability to launch a product, his ability to inspire others and engage his “reality distortion field”, and his brand marketing philosophy.
What do you feel was the key to Jobs’s success?
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