Steve Jobs: A Model Failure

October 25th, 2011

As a marketer, as a consumer, as someone who appreciates genius and beautiful design – as a human being – I was tremendously saddened by the death of Steve Jobs.

Every homage to him, every video, every shrine feels right and well-deserved.  But there is another side of Steve Jobs that is important, as well.

Steve Jobs was a failure.   Not once but several times over.   How about the Apple III?  It was so poorly designed that Apple suggested owners pick it up and drop it a few inches when it stopped working.

Or Lisa?  Now that was a spectacular failure.  Though significant in many respects, the grossly overpriced machine survived for about 18 months before it  was discontinued.  Apple ultimately dumped 2,700 Lisas into a Utah landfill to capture a tax write-off on the unsold inventory.apple lisa.jpg

That was, of course, after Apple had spent $50 million on developing Lisa.

Oops.

But of course, the ultimate Jobs “failure” was getting unceremoniously shoved out of his own company in 1985 by a more politically-astute John Sculley – a big-company executive.

And after getting dumped by Apple, NeXT didn’t do so well, either.

On and on.  Over and over.

“We Americans have a terrible habit of distilling stories of our great men and women into simplified and boring sound bites of success while ignoring the long, crooked, difficult, brave roads they took to realize that success,” says Augie Ray, author of a wonderful blog post called The Failure of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.  “We like to believe that success is what defines the American spirit, but the truth is the opposite:   failure is what defines the people who achieve greatness.”

I’ve been thinking about how many of us could or would have “come back” from the truly crushing (and very public) failures Jobs endured.  Thrown out of your own company?  A spectacular product failure?  His story is obviously unique, but size these disasters down to something that could happen to any of us and ask yourself what you would do.

How would you feel? Could you still be a leader, a seeker?

This is a dislocating time for many, and everything seems weird.  I would advise the average executive as follows:  be certain of what you care about, do something about it, and stay focused on what’s really important.  Know your story.  Believe in your story.  And just keep going.

When talking about getting booted out of Apple, Jobs once said, “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.  Don’t lose faith.”

No one could have said it better or with more credibility.

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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executive Networking Group‘s blog, MENGBlend.

One of the great American pastimes in the marketing business these days is trying to deconstruct what makes Apple, well, Apple.  There was a time when Coke, then Nike, was held up to the same envious scrutiny.  Marketers and agencies want to help their companies move closer to whatever these brands have that make them seem a little magical.

Easier said than done, of course, and I was reminded recently of the importance – and pitfalls – of perspective when trying to apply science to such an elusive concept.  In other words, one must be careful when holding a hammer that everything doesn’t end up looking like a nail.

InsideCRM.com, a site that describes itself as providing “in-depth content that sales managers at small, medium and large companies need to choose the right CRM products and services,” recently published an article titled 12 Effective Strategies Apple Uses to Create Loyal Customers.  The list includes proprietary [technology] formats, attractiveness, education sales and “a store just for Apple.” 

With a heavy dose of respect for the deliberately search-optimized nature of such a pithy headline, I would submit that these items made it onto the list not because they’re the most important, but because they’re the ones that would be interesting to sales managers wearing their CRM hats.  Not only that, but InsideCRM.com had to stretch pretty hard to reach 12, given that at least one of the strategies listed – dedicated retail stores – has produced very public failures for other companies (think Warner Bros., Discovery, Gateway, Compaq…).  

Additionally, I think the article confuses strategies and tactics and even misinterprets a few.  Context and audience were the most influential factors in the creation of this list – not whether the items are actually those that create loyalty.

Likewise, one can wander all over the web and see hammer-swinging folks quoting their own nails, respectively, as the reason(s) that Apple is so successful:

brandchannel:  The power of emotion/[Apple’s ability to] create an emotional link with its audience

MacDailyNews: More than anything else, Apple makes superior products

Engadget.com:  The combination of “high tech, good user experience and stylish presentation”

Does anyone think that any one of the above descriptions really define Apple’s success?  No?

That’s because the hard-to-replicate fact of the matter is that Apple is a winner because of all of the above – and more.  Even Steve Jobs is bashful when he, in part, attributes Apple’s success to making the customer experience as satisfying as is the actual product.   What Jobs has done is obsessively build a company that focuses and controls every bit of the value chain, from the first advertising we see for a non-existent product (how does that advertising make you feel?), to the look and feel of the stores, to the staff uniforms and training, to the product packaging, to the styling, production and functionality of the products, to the after-purchase customer service and communications… it’s an entire ecosystem all its own, from beginning to end, that contributes to that simple sensation of “cool,” or excellence, or desirability we all feel about the company.

One note:  there is a single word in this entire article that accounts for Apple’s success, and it’s the reason why most companies cannot replicate it.  That word is “obsession.”  One man’s obsession and control of a company that is still small enough to keep track of all of its affairs and make sure that every bit of that value chain stays in line.  It’s an expensive, 24/7 job (Jobs!) and, by the nature of the beast, becomes harder and harder to master in big, far-flung companies run by professional managers trying to cut costs and manage multiple brands at the same time.

Ok, maybe one last note:  don’t feel bad.  Even if there was another Steve Jobs out there, part of Apple’s success is the indescribable result of mixing all of these elements together, folding in the boomers, Xers and Yers, layering on the competitive landscape just as it is, at just the right moment in our history… in other words:  magic. 
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