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Walter Isaacson’s book on Apple’s Steve Jobs gets one feeling it’s a pity biographies begin, as they must, with the subject’s early years. After the first 200 pages, many will be tempted to throw away the tome, tiring of a brattish Jobs who typifies much of what the rest of the world dislikes about American businessmen.
Narcissistic, immature, downright nasty – his dark side blunts the admiration we have for his obvious brilliance. But persevere, as I have, and a different picture starts to emerge. Nobody can fail to admire Jobs. As you watch him mature as a human being, you can easily start to actually like him. What should have been the middle part of Steve Jobs’ life is riveting. For me, it mostly supports the Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett’s belief that selecting one’s life partner is the most important decision you’ll make. On this score, Jobs excelled. His watershed came in 1991 when he married the leggy blonde Laurene Powell. Until this point, he looked to be heading back to obscurity. With a post-script like: A talented guy who started Apple Computer; got kicked out because of an ego running riot; then bet his life on a cartoon company which also failed. Instead, Jobs’s life began turning from the point where Powell’s calming influence began. And he went on to revolutionise six different industries, having a greater impact on the world than any businessman of the modern era.
Appropriately, a lot of the heart of Jobs biography focuses on Pixar. After being booted out of Apple, California IT’s enfant terrible became fascinated by a niche software company owned by Star Wars creator George Lucas. What we now know as Pixar was, for Jobs, a perfect merger of art and technology. So he paid an effective $10m for 70% of the business, an investment that he sold just over a decade later for $5bn. A fairy-tale ending, but the roughest of rides. At one point Jobs had blown half the $100m he banked when selling his entire shareholding in Apple.
As you turn the pages, Jobs’ success becomes increasingly likely. A quieter, more determined and more likeable man starts emerging in the early 1990s. Then four years into his marriage to Powell, things start happening. In late 1995, his attention to detail (he helped re-shape the characters as much as any insider) and faith in the brilliant John Lasseter paid off big when Pixar’s Toy Story blasted film animation into the new century.
An even bigger triumph arrived the following year when the last of a raft of post-Jobs Apple CEOs asked the founder to return. Some 11 years after he had been booted off his beloved Cupertino campus, Jobs returned first as a consultant, then interim CEO (officially iCEO – he loved the i-letter) and eventually as the full time boss whose first action was to ask the entire board to resign (they did).
You have to wonder, though, whether any of this would have been possible without his union with Powell. Isaacson describes her as the perfect match for Jobs: “Tough enough to stand up to him, yet Zen-like enough to rise above turmoil. Well educated and independent, yet ready to make accommodations for him and a family. Down-to-earth, but with a touch of the ethereal. Savvy enough to know how to manage him, but secure enough to not always need to.”
Details about this wonder woman are sketchy. Only 16 the 571 pages focus on Laurene. Isaacson clearly decided to chronice Jobs the business disruptor. It’s a pity he didn’t delve more deeply into the out-of-hours partnership where the magic stemmed from. Knowing more about that side of the man’s life would have provided profound lessons for many boardroom inmates.
To criticise Isaacson’s work, though, is like finding fault with the Mona Lisa. Particularly once you get past page 200 or so. Every chapter provides lessons for the rest of us. Jobs’ ideas and statements, his business and life experiences are a feast to mull over at leisure.
So, three quarters of the way into the book, what are the major takeaways?
First, an appreciation that Jobs literally worked himself to death. After returning to Cupertino, for some years he chose to continue running his old love (Apple) and his new (Pixar). Jobs would leave home daily at 7am and return after 9pm so tired, he said, that he literally couldn’t speak. Jobs never smoked (not cigarettes anyway), did not drink alcohol and followed a regimented and healthy diet so rarely carried an extra ounce of fat. Yet he spent the last decade of his life fighting the cancer which in October 2011 took his life. As medical science advances, so does our understanding of the connection between stress and the Big C. Future generations are bound to shake their heads at modern executive lifestyles. And wonder how a genius like Jobs could have missed the obvious.
Another take-away is a re-inforcement of how it’s best to keep your mouth shut and let people wonder whether you’re an idiot rather than open it to prove you are. Like every great innovator through the ages, Jobs had an army of doubters. John Sculley, clearly feeling his oats after ousting Apple’s founder in 1986, proclaimed that Jobs’ strategy of using high tech to design and sell consumer products was “a lunatic plan……Apple will never be a consumer product company,” he claimed. Surprisingly, even though the world now has the Apple iPad, iPad, iPhone, iMac et al, Sculley still shows his face on the speaker circuit.
Then there was the regularly referenced faux pas by computer assembler Michael Dell who, when asked what Jobs should do when re-appointed to Apple in 1996, stated if it were him “I’d shut it down and give the money back to shareholders.” Jobs shot back by sending Dell an email which read “CEOs are supposed to have class. That’s an option you don’t own.”
The media, too, made some terrible calls. After the first of what are now almost 400 Apple Stores opened, the US’s BusinessWeek ran a cover story with the headline “Sorry Steve. Here’s why Apple Stores won’t work.” Ahem. And then there is Jobs’s foe, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who sent an email that ended up in the LA Times dissing Pixar’s soon-to-be released Finding Nemo movie stating: “This will be a reality check for these guys. It’s OK, but nowhere near as good as their previous films.” Finding Nemo became Pixar’s biggest hit generating $868m at the box office. Until 2010 it was the most popular DVD of all time. Eisner was retired by the Disney board after a decade of animation flops.
In many ways, Pixar provides the best lesson for what we can learn from Jobs. His passion got him involved; he nurtured and supported the talent he spotted (especially John Lasseter); persevered long after most other investors would have dumped the business; became intimately involved with details, spending weeks working closely on the breakthrough hit Toy Story; and eventually sold the company into the perfect home – Disney post Eisner – through a deal which multiplied his initial investment 500 fold.
Much as I’m looking forward to the final quarter of Isaacson’s masterpiece, it’s also with trepidation. Until this point the Jobs we’ve met is healthy and energetic. Suppoerted by Laurene and his children, rough edges of the early years have worked away. He’s maturing into the kind of person we’d all love to meet. Like every great biography, we feel we know him well, better perhaps than many of our physical friends. But we are also aware there is no happy ending to this story. This is one of those times you really wish there could be.
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