Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Apple co-founder Jobs was one of those people who kept topping himself, writes veteran technology journalist Lee Gomes. Here’s a look back through Jobs’s life as entrepreneur, designer, and ultimately, icon.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who pioneered the personal-computer industry and became an emblem of Internet-era culture, died Wednesday at the age of 56.

It was less than three months ago when Apple announced that Jobs was stepping down as chief executive of the company he founded in a suburban California garage with friend Steve Wozniak more than 30 years ago. Jobs built Apple into one of the world’s most valuable companies, with a market value of $350 billion.

While launching dozens of market-altering products, Jobs had over much of the past decade been battling pancreatic cancer. In a statement Wednesday his family said Jobs “died peacefully today surrounded by his family.”

The board of Apple, of which Jobs remained chairman, said in a statement: “Steve’s brilliance, passion and energy were the source of countless innovations that enrich and improve all of our lives. The world is immeasurably better because of Steve.”

Countless laudatory reactions poured in online, and over devices, many of which Jobs himself had created.

Here, veteran technology journalist Lee Gomes reflects on Jobs’s legacy, especially as it relates to entrepreneurs.

Aspiring entrepreneurs run a tremendous risk in seeking inspiration from the life of Jobs. His career was so triumphant, his accomplishments so vast, and came in so many disparate fields, that one might be tempted to simply give up without trying. Edison, Ford, Disney, Jobs…successes like those come but a few times a century. Why even bother?

But Jobs’s failures, and he had many, are in some ways more instructive for entrepreneurs than his successes, which, of course, were far more numerous.

Those successes, chiefly at Apple and Pixar, are rightly getting most of the attention at this very sad time. But it’s worth surveying his reversals as well. Far from diminishing Jobs’s accomplishments, they highlight them, reminding us that his path to success was often difficult; full of setbacks and disappointments that, through sheer force of will, he was able to overcome. Defeats? Every entrepreneur knows about defeats, including Steve Jobs.

Consider, for example, the sight of a grown man lying on a bare mattress in a nearly-unfurnished house, crouched in a fetal position and sobbing uncontrollably.

That’s not how we like to picture our captains of industry. But that was the Jobs that friends found when they came calling at his house in May 1985.

The 30-year old Jobs had just been fired by the board of directors of Apple, the company he co-founded. The reasons for the termination? Petulance, intransigence, arrogance; basically, he was found guilty of being Steve Jobs. The problem was, though, that he was doing so at a time when the Macintosh computer, whose creation he had just championed, had yet to become a success.

Apple was still almost completely dependent for its profits on the ancient Apple II, which Jobs and Steve Wozniak had co-designed way back in 1977. Jobs wanted to devote far more of Apple’s resources to pushing the Mac than the board thought prudent. When no one would indulge him, he went so far as to attempt a banana republic-style coup to oust CEO John Sculley while Sculley was on a trip to China.

The board, made aware of the treachery, voted to cast Jobs off. And it was the afternoon of that dismissal that friends found him home alone, crying like a baby whose favorite plaything had just been taken away from him.

It was surely the low point in Jobs’s life; the fact that he had no one but himself to blame for it only made it worse. At that point, still a very young man, and with a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, he could have done anything he wished. What he chose to do was to yet again become an entrepreneur. This is what not giving up looks like.

There were many problems with Jobs second company, not the least of which was its self-indulgently autobiographical name, Next Computer Inc. Next ended up a dismal failure, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, but selling units in the thousands instead of the millions that Jobs had hoped for.

But at the same time, Next was the crucible out of which grew Jobs greatest successes–the iMacs, iPods, iPhones and iPads that didn’t merely revitalize a moribund Apple, but made it the most valuable company in the world.

It was at Next that Jobs honed his single greatest strength as an entrepreneur: the sense of elegant design that pervaded everything his company did. The first Next computer was a matte black magnesium cube. It is often considered the most beautiful computer ever made, and showed Jobs at his aesthete’s best.

But Next, in its failures, also taught Jobs that great industrial design is pointless without efficient business processes to accompany them: smooth retail channels, efficient supply chains, low-cost manufacturing abilities. Next had none of those, as became painfully evident in not much time at all.

The lesson was learned. When Jobs finally returned to Apple, he spent his first months back poring over spreadsheets instead of design portfolios. He wasn’t going to let humdrum business logistics do him in again, ever. Great design can wait. He needed to find a cheap source of memory chips.

I write as a technology journalist who first interviewed Jobs more than three decades ago, and who interacted with him several dozen times since. (Note that I claim no special relationship; many reporters spent much more time with Jobs than I ever did.)

Montaigne famously said that no man is a hero to his valet. Unless you were in a small and constantly-changing circle of favored friends, Jobs could, frankly, be difficult to be around. Reporters would gather before Apple press conferences and trade stories about how in some interview he had been sneering or dismissive or loose with the facts. Apple employees were famous for never wanting to be stuck on an elevator ride with the big boss, lest they have an insufficiently satisfying answer to that most dreaded question, “And what exactly do you do here?”

My favorite Jobs story happens to be one that shows him at what for an aspiring entrepreneur ought to be considered his most inspiring. It was during his doldrums years, well after the introduction of the Next, but during the long cruel period when the company was going nowhere. Working the San Jose Mercury News, and writing about the “workstation” industry to which Next belonged, it wasn’t hard to miss the fact that companies like Sun Microsystems were running away with Next’s market.

As we were Next’s hometown paper, the company tried its best to maintain good relations, and invited myself and my editor to come by for a visit and a product demo.

We didn’t know until we got there that it would be Jobs himself giving the demo. In the protocols of Silicon Valley, CEOs don’t give product demos unless their guest is a dignitary on the level of a U.S. president; it’s a task ordinarily left to new hires in marketing. But with Next going nowhere, Jobs knew that his star power was necessary to make the requisite impression to this pair of local scribes.

It was a long demo; an hour and a half. During the whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking what it must have been like to be in his shoes just then. He wasn’t trying to pretend that he particularly enjoyed having to be there, giving his gazillionth run-through of what his machine could do in front of a duo whose lowly stature was another reminder that his company was failing.

Yet he discharged his obligations with professionalism and even occasional enthusiasm. He worked hard at trying to impress us. Harder than most people would have, considering the circumstances. Years later, after his spectacular return to Apple, Jobs wouldn’t ever again need to spend an entire half-morning with such unprestigious company. But that morning at Next, he knew what he needed to do–to make his machine seem exciting again–and he pulled it off. I can imagine him staring in the mirror before our meeting started, saying to himself, “OK, Steve, get your game face on.” Even Jobs sometimes needed to psych himself up.

We have had a long time to prepare for the sad news. Jobs was always extremely private, and rarely talked about his illnesses. But he didn’t really need to. With each passing product introduction, he grew greyer, more gaunt, more weak in his voice, less sturdy on his feet. Like any human being, as he realized his life would be cruelly short, he surely went through the stages of grieving. We will even forgive him if, on account of his accomplishment and sense of self-regard, he spent longer than he might have on stage two: anger. But all he ever displayed publicly was calm acceptance. “I’m fine, thanks. Hey, check out our cool new product.” His great sense of style stayed with him, even in the way he died.

Jobs was born in 1955, slightly late in the baby boom cycle, but the arc of his life was quintessentially Boomer. Dropping out of Reed College; early encounters with LSD and Indian mysticism; selling, as his first business, the Little Blue Boxes used in the 1960s to make free phone calls, then an act of counterculture rebellion. He liked to quote the Beatles, and for those of a certain age, his death, despite being entirely anticipated, is much like John Lennon’s. Suddenly, there is a hole in the universe where there shouldn’t be. Now it’s our turn for stage two anger and denial. Jobs was one of those people who kept topping himself, and we will forever wonder what else he could have done.

Read more about Steve Jobs’s career:

A Timeline of the Visionary Entrepreneur

By Inc. staff and Lee Gomes |  Oct 5, 2011

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