I spent last night re-reading stories about Steve Jobs’ life and I realized why he was so different from most CEOs out there: For Jobs, making money was of secondary importance. Now, don’t get me wrong. Money was extremely important to Jobs as it is to all capitalists. Jobs, Tim Cook and company wouldn’t have spent years building up the most efficient production and distribution system in the world if they didn’t care about the bottom line. The issue is more that Jobs never wanted to make money for its own sake: He wanted to earn it by making the best and most original products the world had ever seen.
This is never more evident than in Jobs’ feelings toward John Sculley, the former Apple (AAPL) executive who was instrumental in ousting Jobs from the company back in 1985 after Jobs had essentially tried to lead a coup against him. Sculley had been a successful president at Pepsi in the 1970s and Jobs had been initially attracted to Sculley’s marketing prowess, but the two men often butted heads when it came to the company’s long-term vision. Jobs’ biggest critique of Sculley was that he was trying to make Apple into a soda company that took little risk and that raked in profits by releasing the same set of predictable, unimaginative products year in and year out.
“John Sculley ruined Apple,” Jobs bluntly said during a 1995 interview during the The Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program. “He ruined it by bringing a set of values to the top of Apple which were corrupt and corrupted some of the top people who were there, drove out some of the ones who were not corruptible, and brought in more corrupt ones and paid themselves collectively tens of millions of dollars and cared more about their own glory and wealth than they did about what built Apple in the first place — which was making great computers for people to use… What that cost them was the future. What they should have been doing was making reasonable profits and going for market share, which was what we always tried to do.”
Accepting mere “reasonable” profits in the short-term is not something most CEOs are wired to do. As Facebook’s (FB) Mark Zuckerberg has quickly discovered, Wall Street is always harping upon companies to produce larger margins quarter after quarter and is generally unsympathetic to companies who plead for patience while executing a long-term strategy. These financial pressures are very difficult for any chief executive to resist but Jobs managed to do so because he was one of the most willful and stubborn business leaders in living memory. Jobs knew exactly what he wanted to do, and if you thought it was too risky then your only option was to get out of his way.
The most telling anecdote from Jobs’ second tenure at Apple was his plan to emulate fictional candy magnate Willy Wonka by issuing a “golden ticket” inside the millionth iMac box shipped out that would grant the recipient a free tour of Apple’s campus in Cupertino. This is perfect for so many reasons: Like Jobs, Roald Dahl’s Wonka placed much more emphasis on delivering “magical” experiences with his chocolates than in simply making the most cash. From the Everlasting Gobstopper to the Three-Course Dinner Gum, Wonka’s products were hugely experimental and pushed the limits what people expected out of candy.
And like Jobs, Wonka was capable of creating his own “reality distortion field” to get what he wanted from others. If you’ve read anecdotes about Jobs’ notoriously ruthless criticism of his own employees, then it’s not to hard to imagine him turning his engineers into giant blueberries or taking them on creepy psychedelic boat rides if it would get them to produce better work. Similarly, it’s easy to see Wonka tasting a new treat cooked up by his Oompa-Loompas, spitting it out on the floor and telling them that “This is s***!”
And years from now, this might go down as Steve Jobs’ legacy: He was a businessman so atypical from most American CEOs that the only person we can aptly compare him with is a fictional character.