Thursday, August 25th, 2011

What I learned from Steve Jobs


I’ll admit it. I’m a major Steve Jobs wantrepreneur. In the past week, given all of the dramatic changes at Google and HP, and thinking about the turmoil that exists within Microsoft, I couldn’t help but think, there’s only one man in tech that is unstoppable. I was wrong. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Steve Jobs is the most important person in technology. The history books in another decade may even put him at the top of the best business people lists. And he’s been a true inspiration to pretty much every “technologist” I know, mac and PC customers alike. For me, it’s not in a “this is why I got into computers” kind of way – that spot sadly may be held by the creator of the Toshiba laptop or whoever designed the first Sesame Street game for DOS (of my earliest childhood computer memories) – instead, Jobs represents taking advantage of all the possibilities and potential of computing. And most importantly he embodies and has led with the attitude, “you only live once, so you might as well make it count.” Everyone in every business could learn a bit from that.

So it’s incredibly disappointing to see Steve Jobs step down from running Apple. He’s technology’s Michael Jordan, if MJ would have also won an Oscar for Space Jam. Or music’s Bob Dylan, with an actual contemporary comeback. He’s Neil Armstrong.

And even though he’s leaving, I think we will benefit from years of amazing product execution thanks to the people, infrastructure, and DNA that he’s left with the company. And by most reports, it looks like Steve will still be active in product direction and strategy. The products that he’s given us will most certainly stand the test of time, and at least for the next several years continue to gain tremendous market share and be loved by many. Beyond today’s portfolio of products, Steve has also left us with brilliant lessons on how to build amazing technologies and companies.

What would Steve Jobs do?

The Steve Jobs legacy, more than anything, is the story of overcoming market forces and extremely competitive factors to build the largest and possibly most important company in the world. Sorry, Groupon. Steve Jobs has taught us you can always fight back once you’re behind, that up is the new down. He taught us that the way to build the best value for customers is to get amazing people together, push them, and create incredible products. Given how important technology is in our everyday lives, this is a surprisingly rare combination. Steve Jobs took this to the limits, and it paid off for customers, employees, and investors in spades. And by spades I mean 80X growth in the past 15 years.

Apple teaches us that we can have delightful, intuitive, and emotional experiences with the technology that we use. It teaches us that quality doesn’t have to be subjective if perfection is the goal. Apple serves as a reminder to all of us to constantly strive to ask, “What’s the right way to do this?” Across product development, customer support, openness, distribution, and user experience, every potential outcome has a wide range of options. Why not go for the one that is the most satisfying, not the one that’s easiest? To do so, you must build a company and culture around performing at its peak.

Steve Jobs was famous for saying, “Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” For all new hires coming to work at Box, we go through an extensive onboarding process that helps educate people on the history of Box, what we do today, and where we’re going. Once I flash this quote in the presentation, the room tends to get silent as they’re thinking about the meaning of this text to them. It’s true: most people haven’t been in environments that push them to the limits, for better or worse. We’re not often challenged, and we don’t often take it upon ourselves to challenge others. This is what creates the status quo, whether it’s in technology, services, retail, or fashion.

Creating a culture and organization where people not only do what’s right for customers, but do it in the most elegant and ‘excellent’ way is a defining characteristic of Apple, but one that can applied anywhere. And it tends to show up everywhere when you live by it. Go into an Apple store, and you’re nearly unequivocally greeted by a happy face. When you visit the Apple website, every pixel is perfectly placed. When you unwrap your iPad for the first time, it’s like you’re taking a journey into the future.

We all have the ability to create excellence. And frankly, it’s a lot more fun when we do. Crap is less fun, less inspiring, less motivating, and less rewarding. And if at any point you stop doing pursuing excellence, just ask yourself, ‘what would Steve do?’

  • Frank Kenney

    Excellent blog, very well thought out and inspiring. From my perspective Box continues to evolve as a force in collaboration and more importantly a bridge between the enterprise, the prosumer and the consumer. Continued Kudos

    -Frank Kenney

    • Mark Saldana

      Thanks, Frank!

  • David Rohrsheim

    In the rush to get a job done, tick something off their checklist, make their boss happy, and get out the door, not enough people hold themselves to the work standard of “What’s the right way to do this?” Too many hide behind the mantra of “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” as an excuse. But it comes naturally if you love your job. Classic management techniques, TPS reports, and targets rarely bring the best in somebody.

    You need to inspire your team to do well. This Jobs quote resonates for me: “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

  • Bret Waters

    Nicely put, Aaron. As others have pointed out, what’s remarkable isn’t so much the products which Steve Jobs built, but the companies. Apple, Pixar (and even NeXT) are known world-wide as centers of innovation with an ethos, as you put it, around doing what’s right for customers and always doing it with excellence and elegance. To build that ethos into the DNA of a company isn’t an easy thing to do. But he did it, and it serves as a model for all the rest of us.

  • Santa Cruz Surfers

    The “best quote” I have ever utilized in management is “energy follows focus”. Steve Jobs is the epitome of focus. The company and individual energy that followed, is Apple today. It will never cease to amaze me how many companies lack focus and expect extra ordinary success. Share the vision with laser focus…the energy is unlimited.

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  • CiviGuard

    “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle