October, 2011

Fruits of Thought

iProduce - Lessons The Industry Can Learn From Steve Jobs

The death of Steve Jobs requires no memorial here. Along with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, Jobs altered the everyday lives of countless millions of people, and his life and death have been chronicled everywhere. In truth, Steve Jobs doesn’t need many memorials. Each iPhone, iPad, iPod or MacIntosh computer... each Pixar movie and every single iTunes account stands as testimony to the enormity of his contribution to the world.

Nobody else can be Steve Jobs or live his life. We can, however, attempt to draw lessons from his life that can help in the businesses we have and the lives we lead. A lifetime of observation in the produce trade leads to these thoughts:

Avoid Incrementalism

One of the great challenges of business is that we tend to spend enormous amounts of time, energy and money to achieve small, incremental improvements. This is true on an industry policy level at our trade associations and true on a company-by-company level in product development and other areas.

Steve Jobs grew his company not just by incrementally improving his product but by dramatically doing new things. Many people and corporate boards would have dismissed his proposals for the iTunes store or the iPod saying that Apple was a computer company. Many would have rejected proposals for the iPhone, pointing out that Apple was not a telecommunications company. They would have pointed out that these projects were outside Apple’s core competency.

Over-Reliance On Market Research

One of the causes of incrementalism in product development is over-reliance on market research, such as focus groups. There is nothing wrong with doing such research, but we fool ourselves into thinking that this type of research will be the source of the great products of the future.

Think of the dynamic. Imagine a focus group or survey prior to the invention of the airplane. The subject: The problems of transatlantic travel. What could come out of it? Perhaps people will propose faster boats or more comfortable cabins. Surely nobody will say, “We need giant birds made of aluminum that will fly hundreds of us across the ocean in a few hours.” They would be candidates for the funny farm and thrown out of the group.

The real advances are products that people don’t even know they need.  One doesn’t get that from a focus group.

Marketing Is Primary, Not Secondary

It was Steve Wozniak, not Steve Jobs, who was the technical genius. Yet what Jobs did created infinitely more value. When he got out there each year and turned his annual new product presentations into media events, he gave Apple the cool image of producing insanely great products.

It is hard for those in the produce industry, often rooted in farming that is so tied to the tangible earth, to see that brand creation is the source of much wealth. Think of it this way: What is more valuable? The name Campbell’s Soup and the recipes to make the soup — in other words, the intellectual property — or all the factories that produce the soup and all the trucks that deliver it? It is the name Campbell’s Soup and the recipes, because what travels with those assets are a call on shelf space at every supermarket in America. The factories and trucks can be replaced, not so the brand.

Insist On Excellence

Steve Jobs was famously hard on his people, unforgiving of failure and demanding of excellence. He often made people break down in tears. Yet, all the best people wanted to work for him.

The world is demanding and getting more so, and we do a great disservice to people by making them think mediocrity is acceptable. Mediocrity may not be a mortal sin, but it is most certainly not a competitive edge.

Freedom To Fail

It is, of course, the successes that are remembered long after the failures are forgotten, but Jobs had many failures, most notably a computer called LISA, which was a precursor to the Mac, and his own NeXT computer company, which failed as a hardware company, but employed the software that Apple eventually adopted.

One of the hardest things to do in a company is to find someone authorized to lose money. Yet, nobody bats 100 percent, so the only way to get a lot of hits is to have a lot of misses.

In America, failure is not a dirty word; it is the only route to success.

Believe In Oneself

As a teenager, Jobs called up the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and persuaded him to give Jobs free computer chips. Think of the gumption and self-confidence that showed.

The most perfect commercial in the history of the world was shown on the Superbowl broadcast back in 1984 to introduce the Macintosh, which was presented as the alternative to an Orwellian nightmare in which the world, controlled by a dark and evil force — quite conveniently seen as IBM, the Mac’s big competitor in those days.

Today, it is lauded as a work of art and commercial genius that positioned the Mac perfectly and garnered hundreds of millions in free publicity for Apple.

What people forget is that Apple’s board of directors hated the commercial. Jobs went ahead anyway, denying the older and supposedly wiser board any say in the matter.

The reason there is doubt about Apple’s future is because it seems likely that the next guy will bend to the group-think of the board and then the spirit and creativity will be gone.

Despite Herculean efforts and almost a decade to prepare, Apple is likely to have great troubles with its founder and muse gone. The company may go on, it may even become larger and more profitable, yet it is most unlikely to be more creative or contribute better ideas to the world. Improving the world is a task that, always, belongs to the living.