Apple Without Steve Is Like Disney Without Walt
Jan 19, 2009 4:00 AM PT
Both Steve Jobs and Apple are unique -- well, almost -- in the technology market. Most companies spend their money on lots of product choices and hope to hit a sweet spot for a customer; Apple spends its money on marketing and design and drives customers to the sweet spot it creates. Most CEOs focus on financial performance, investors and big customers; Steve Jobs focuses on design, product presentation and driving employees and suppliers like cattle, leaving the traditional CEO roles largely to others. Apple and Steve Jobs are deeply intertwined, with no evidence of any real life outside or after Apple for Jobs, and no real successor to Jobs for Apple.
Let's explore that this week in the context of the last time I saw this -- in the '70s with Disney -- and close with my product of the week, a book on how to answer the ultimate question about business.
Comparing Apple to Disney
I've been doing a lot of coverage regarding Steve Jobs' announcement that he would step down and believe the odds are against him coming back. This has resulted in a long look at the other companies I've covered over the years and the realization that I've only really seen one truly like Apple. Bill Gates, while similar, stopped being the key product pitchman for Microsoft some time before he left, and he eased out of the role. This forced me to look back farther, and I landed at Disney, which, while Walt was still there, had a unique magic much like Apple does that goes beyond what it was and goes to what folks imagined it to be.
Walt Disney was the human personification of the Disney Corp., and what drove this home was seeing him on television every Sunday and many of the times Disneyland was pitched. In addition, he often personally pitched the movies his company made, much like Jobs generally pitches the products Apple makes.
Disney, like Jobs, was a known fixture at both Disneyland and the Disney studio and seemed to find a way to touch most of the employees. It was his vision that created both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, though the latter wasn't completed until after his death.
But when he died, the Disney we knew died with him. It took a few years for some of his ideas to work through the pipeline, but I'm sure many didn't end up the way he had intended and the success of the company declined until a failed hostile takeover and breakup resulted in a new management team and a new Disney.
Disney now is a media giant, but I think it lacks much of the magic it had while Walt was there. The best example of this was the need to buy Pixar for a massive amount of money in order to, once again, bring out the kind of product that Disney built the company on.
If Disney ever wanted to capture the greatness it once had, it might make sense to put someone from Pixar in a role that facilitated their imagination and vision to flow across more of the properties. But what would be the equivalent of a Pixar for Apple?
Steve Jobs the Face of Apple
Like Disney was under Walt, Apple is a unique company under Steve Jobs. This is most deeply detailed it the book Inside Steve's Brain, which I recommended folks read last year. While it isn't unusual for a CEO to focus on things they know and delegate many of the responsibilities other CEOs have, it is unusual for a CEO to take the path that Steve Jobs did.
Carly Fiorina came close with regard to making herself the visible face of HP and aggressively attempting to remove the images of the founders, but while she did drive HP's vision, she didn't get intimate with the products nor did she drive people to perform at a deep level in the company.
Why Steve Is Unique
In Apple, there is a unique term: "Steve'd", which is when Steve fires someone he is upset with on the spot. He has a history of going down to the individual worker and scaring them with termination to get the results he wants, and at no other company I follow is fear used as effectively.
This goes beyond employees. I met with an ex-Apple vendor at CES last week and they told the story of how Steve had demanded they redesign a chip and put it into production in a few weeks. They tried to explain that even if they hand carried and expedited everything it would take at least 90 days to design the part, validate the design, build a prototype, test it, and then create a manufacturing line to build the new part. He told them that if they didn't meet his schedule he would never do business with them again. It was physically impossible to meet his demands and yet he pulled all his business from the vendor. Vendors are scared half to death they will be "Steve'd."
But he even personally gets involved with competitors. Upon learning that HP was bringing out an MP3 player, he personally called Carly Fiorina and offered to allow her to build an HP-branded iPod, promising to let HP have the colors it wanted (as long as they didn't make the iPod look bad), and that Apple would work with HP to develop transcoding so the device would work with Windows Media files (HP is a Windows vendor, after all).
After the deal was struck, he notified HP that only white was appropriate for an iPod and never allowed transcoding, but the contract still locked HP out of the MP3 player market until Apple dominated it. Effectively, Steve Jobs "Steve'd," HP and people there are still pissed. Right or wrong, it worked -- and this personal involvement is unique in any market for a CEO.
How Steve Assures Perceived Quality
Steve assures the products from the original design concept all the way through the final presentation. Or at least did. He thinks about how he will present a product, and that is why you got stunning designs like the first and current iPod nano, and it is likely he wasn't that involved in the third generation of that product because it didn't present well (and why Apple redesigned it for the current generation).
He is known to spend hours making sure, upon the first presentation of a product, that the lighting is just right and that the product is positioned just so and seems to have a natural sense for how to showcase a product in its best light.
Steve Is Unique and Will Be Missed
In the end, what probably makes Steve Jobs unique is that unlike any other, he is more of a product manager with CEO authority than a typical CEO, which makes him almost impossible to replicate.
So, like Disney without Walt, Apple simply won't be Apple without Steve because he is the guy who crafts Apple's image and the image of its products to customers, vendors and employees. Without him, Apple would need to become more like a more common company and, recall, it tried that once before and it didn't end well. We'll see; in any case, let's hope Steve gets better or the Apple board figures out a good plan B, or maybe both. The Apple board didn't do its job and Steve shouldn't be in the position he is in, but that is for another day; for now let's just think about the wonder that is Steve Jobs.
Book of the Week: Answering the Ultimate Question
Part of what makes Apple the company they are is the near-rabid loyalty of its customer fan base. What companies like EMC are learning is that customers come in a lot of flavors, ranging from the ones who will do anything for you to the ones that demand the lowest price and run you into the red, milking you for everything they can get.
If there were a way to get more of the former and encourage the latter to switch to a competitor, this would go a long way toward creating a company with the kind of loyalty Apple enjoys. The book Answering the Ultimate Question: How Net Promoter Can Transform Your Business by Richard Owen and Laura L. Brooks does a great job explaining how to use NPS (Net Promoter Score) to increase customer loyalty and improve the bottom line.
It's my pick of the week because, in this economy, we all need to be focused like lasers on the bottom line.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.