Steve Jobs: Motivational Business Tips

Always looking to create heroes they can later destroy and then redeem, the popular press characterized Steve Jobs as a: young technology rock star (early 1980’s), petulant, spoiled brat (late 1980’s), washed-up, 0ne-hit wonder (early 1990’s), and ultimately an aging technology rock star (2000, until his death). During his celebrated career, Steve shared numerous nuggets of sage advice. Below are six business tips which are particularly relevant to entrepreneurs.

1. Mediocre Isn’t On The Menu

“What happens in most companies is that you don’t keep great people under working environments where individual accomplishment is discouraged rather than encouraged. The great people leave and you end up with mediocrity. I know, because that’s how Apple AAPL -0.27% was built. Apple is an Ellis Island company. Apple is built on refugees from other companies. These are the extremely bright individual contributors who were troublemakers at other companies.”

Shortly after Steve Jobs’ death, I had a compelling conversation with a highly successful photojournalist at a coffee shop. He overheard me talking about Steve in relation to my UC Santa Barbara entrepreneurship class. The photographer (whom I will call Mac to maintain his requested anonymity) indicated that he knew Steve. He proceeded to tell me several entertaining anecdotes, dating back to the early-1980’s.

One of Mac’s stories was particularly compelling. In the summer of 1985, he was in Jobs’ office when a photographer for Fortune magazine arrived to shoot Steve for an upcoming cover.

Steve told the gentleman from Fortune to take his time scouting a suitable location for the photo. He implored the photographer to (paraphrasing Mac), “not be afraid to strive for an image that was, out of the box.” After a couple of hours, the photographer returned to Steve’s office and announced that he had identified a suitable location for the photo shoot.

The photographer placed Steve in front of the Apple logo in the company’s lobby. Once Steve realized what the photographer had in mind, he calmly said, “You must be kidding me. Apple’s CEO standing in front of the Apple logo?! I won’t be part of such a mediocre effort,” . He then walked away, leaving the uninspiring photographer standing alone in the lobby.

Once Steve departed, the photographer was visibly shaken. As a fellow photojournalist, Mac had empathy for the man from Fortune. After speaking with Jobs, Steve agreed to give the photographer another chance. The resulting photo, while not particularly imaginative, is at least a departure from the formulaic, CEO standing in the foreground of their company’s logo.

2. Quality Is More Than Skin Deep

“We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Another of Mac’s stories highlights the degree to which Steve treated his product designs as works of art. Jobs gave Mac a Macintosh 128k as a gift. After using it for a number of years, Mac passed the computer on to a friend who could not afford a new one.

Years later, Jobs asked Mac if he still had the Macintosh 128k. Mac proudly told him that he had given it to a friend thinking Steve would approve of his act of charity. “That’s too bad,” Steve told him, “because I signed the inside, along with the other members of my development team. The unit I gave you was one of the first Macintoshes ever produced.”

3. Success = Grinding It Out

“’I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.’ ”

As Guy Kawasaki noted in this video interview, hard work is his secret weapon. I regularly bring successful entrepreneurs into my classroom and the common attributes of these individuals are their stamina and willingness to do whatever was necessary to succeed.

4. Love Is All You Need (When Hiring…)

“When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself.

They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.”

Recruit people who will place your startup’s success before their individual self-interest. Make it clear to your team that when your employees make decisions which are good for everyone, they are acting in their own self-interest.

5. Getting Some Booty

“Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?”

Although violent and cutthroat, pirates during the 17th and 18th centuries were surprisingly egalitarian. Most crews shared their ill-gotten gains based on each crew member’s efforts. For instance, those who were part of boarding parties were given larger shares than those who stayed behind, in order to compensate them for their risk of bodily harm.

During pirates’ glory days, caste systems were prevalent across most of Europe. As such, becoming a buccaneer was one of the only opportunities for minorities and uneducated, non-landed whites to acquire wealth. In modern times, entrepreneurship offers the same egalitarian opportunity. As noted above, if you have the adequate stamina and intelligence, you will not be denied.

6. Getting Naked

“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Entrepreneurs often get naked when they follow their hearts; however, they never fail. Having the necessary courage to follow your heart is an achievement unto itself. Steve Jobs was successful on many levels, not the least of which was his willingness to ignore conventional wisdom and follow his heart.

7. Knowing What To Connect

“Creativity is just connecting things.”

As noted in Startups Are A Remix, creativity is often expressed by assembling that which has come before, in new and often surprising combinations. Startups comprised of members who apply a diversity of thought to solving problems are more likely to devise creative and inherently unique solutions. As Harvard Professor Michael Porter notes, competitive advantage is not derived by doing things, “better, faster, cheaper.” Rather, it is often the result of doing, “different things.”

8. Knowing What Not To Connect

“I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

Returning to Michael Porter, “strategy isn’t what you do. It’s what you don’t do.” Knowing what not to do is far more challenging than attempting to do everything.

As noted in Go For The Quick Buck, there are times in a company’s maturation when it is forced to pursue activities that are not in its long-term interest. However, the danger with such opportunistic, short-term activities is that they derail the company from achieving its strategic goals.

9. Money Doesn’t Motivate

“I was worth over $1,000,000 when I was 23, and over $10,000,000 when I was 24, and over $100,000,000 when I was 25, and it wasn’t that important because I never did it for the money.”

As described in Why You (And Your Employees) Have To Work, money is an inadequate motivator for most entrepreneurs. Once their basic physical needs are satisfied, entrepreneurs are typically driven by: mastery, challenge and an ability to impact a meaningful mission.

Jobs’ basic needs were more than covered with his first few million dollars. It is not realistic to say he was never motivated by money. However, he clearly did not pour his passion into Apple AAPL -0.27%, NeXT and Pixar for the past 30-years in order to simply add to his fortune. Once his initial needs were satisfied, Jobs was driven by a desire to ensure his life was meaningful, or in his words, “I want to put a ding in the universe.”

10. Leadership Is Breaking Wind

“The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay.”

Successful leaders don’t manage their team. Rather, they remove the obstacles that stand in their team’s way. Draft the headwinds for your team so they can deliver on their mandates.

11. Big Dumb Companies Are Often Just That

“So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard HPQ -0.42%, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’”

Just because the leaders in your industry do not see the wisdom of your ideas, do not waiver. As Clay Christensen aptly pointed out in The Innovator’s Dilemma, the very fact that they have a legacy they are forced to defend, makes it more difficult for them to assess which emerging technologies hold the most promise.


John Greathouse, Contributor
Street smart startup advice.