For a while I have pondered the question of what would have happened if Steve Jobs had not been kicked out of Apple, gone on to Next and Pixar and then come back to Apple but if instead had stayed at Apple. In my opinion, Apple would have gone downhill, would not have had the iPod, iPhone and iPad and this would be a different world. Why do I think this? Not many people remember that during Job’s first stint at Apple the company got into serious financial trouble. For all of its ease of use and powerful graphic capabilities, the Macintosh was never more than a niche computer and sales were far lower than expectations. I strongly believe that Apple’s main error during this period was to overprice the Macintosh relative to the PC. While Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985, Apple continued Jobs’ approach to position its computers as premium products of high power and high cost at margins above 55%. Apple had a golden opportunity to become the standard desktop computer but unfortunately they continued to stubbornly try to extract way too much of a premium vs. the PC. I believe that Apple’s golden chance was between the distraction of the IBM PS2 launch in 1987 and the release of Windows 3.0 in May of 1990. If Apple had lowered the prices of the Macintosh during this time period, neither Microsoft nor Intel would be what they are today and Apple would have become a giant 20 years earlier. As it was, Apple desperately lowered prices on the existing Macintosh line and introduced the sub-$1000 Macintosh classic in October 1990 in response to Windows 3.0. However it was too little, too late. In fact during this period, every time that I saw someone making a horrendous marketing strategy error I would say that they were a graduate of the “Apple Macintosh School of Marketing”. Thus I believe that Steve Jobs time outside Apple was essential to the company's current success.
Recently Fast Company published an article called “The Lost Steve Jobs Tapes” that is consistent with my conclusion. This article was based on interviews with Brent Schlender, a reporter that had a number of conversations with Jobs during his “Wilderness Years” at Next and Pixar. His opinion is that these years were for Jobs the equivalent attending business school, and that he grew by leaps and bounds.
The lessons are powerful: He matured as a manager and as a boss; learned how to make the most of partnerships; found a way to turn his stubbornness into a productive perseverance. He became a corporate architect, coming to appreciate the scaffolding of a business just as much as the skeletons of real buildings, which always fascinated him.
It is all too easy to dismiss these “lost” years. But in truth, they transformed everything.
When looking at Apple before and after I certainly can agree. Apple mutated from a technology-driven company during Jobs’ first stint to a design and marketing-driven company when he returned and the results are there for everyone to see.
This is a lesson that is applicable in many situations, both in entrepreneurial settings and corporate settings. Highly creative types sometimes do not have a full rounding of business skills. That is not a reason to push them out, but to find a ways to integrate their skills and find ways to complement their gaps by forming the right teams, sometimes with the help of team members that I call “translators”, which have a broader skill set and can communicate with the extremes. This is a basic requirement for teams to succeed in creating disruptive innovation.