Top lessons from Steve Jobs biography – it’s the products

Reading Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs was a privileged look into the life of a very special individual. It certainly completes the picture of the man that has emerged with increasing rapidity over the last years and months.

In the spirit of what he stood for, here are what I see as five of the the key lessons we can all take to heart. These start and end with creating great products.

Seek to change the world by:

  1. Striving to create awesome products
  2. Focusing on a very few products at once
  3. Selling only products you are proud of
  4. Cannibalizing your own products if it puts the end users first
  5. Setting the standard by being your own toughest customer

Apple itself exemplifies these.

These are each extraordinarily difficult to achieve, especially within the confines of a large company. In achieving these for Apple and Pixar Jobs was a mercurial task master, and was often brutal on people, although they often remarked much later that he brought out the best in them. Staff, especially at Pixar and NeXT, learned to filter his outbursts by de-amplifying the intensity of the message delivery mechanism and listening to the intent behind it. Over time he softened his personal attacks, though never completely, and focussed as he should on the person’s output.

These philosophies can apply to almost everything – to companies, political parties and even to us as individuals.

Another way to look at the lessons list is to understand what they do not mean. Here is an anti-list of lessons, the list we should all strive to avoid.

Have no clear customer cause and:

  1. Focus on making money, building a company, or creating a ‘brand’
  2. Cover the shelves with your large breadth of product varieties
  3. Sell anything that makes money
  4. Delay introducing new products to maintain the cash cows
  5. Use focus groups to approve product concepts

Imagine if some traditional players took the lessons from Jobs and Apple. Why – we could have:

  • Telecommunications companies that deliver all you can eat data for one price across multiple technologies (phone, home fibre and DSL, metro wifi and international);
  • Political parties that agreed on almost everything and focused on fixing the problems, and having considered fact-based debates only on the few things that mattered to their own philosophy;
  • A selection of five different rather than 100 similar toothbrushes at the supermarket, making it easy to choose and move on;
  • Food packaging that is simple for 80 year old grandmothers and their grand children to open and close with one hand;
  • Publishers delivering us their content simultaneously across all media for a single all-inclusive price;
  • Banks that help individuals save rather than excessively borrow money;
  • Power companies that provided us with the information and tools to conserve energy rather than use it
  • Airlines, airports and taxi companies working together to half overall travel times and improve the experience

and so on and on and on. We can show examples for some of these, but countless examples of the reverse.

Jobs couldn’t for years bear to own anything that wasn’t beautiful, and his house was sparsely furnished as a result. He was a champion of design that democratized beauty – so that great design wasn’t just confined to the 1%.

Steve’s philosophy as popularized by Apple’s success lives on. Today we see not just Apple’s products everywhere, but also countless other products that are heavily influenced by Apple’s design leadership and design thinking philosophies.

As customers we increasingly no longer need to compromise – we can demand beauty, sustainability and perfect function in everything we buy.

That is the legacy Steve Jobs has left us.

Thank-you and RIP Steve Jobs, and thank-you to Walter Isaacson for a wonderful portrait of his life.

Published by Lance Wiggs


5 replies on “Top lessons from Steve Jobs biography – it’s the products”

  1. The problem with Steve Job’s five steps is it takes a lot of talent that most people and businesses don’t have. For example I am a software dev and can say most dev’s wouldn’t know a good from a bad product if it hit them in the face. The businesses need to take a more formulaic approach to survive.


    1. @Craig – it’s not the software dev that needs to have the vision to come up with, and pursue a good product concept- it’s the leadership- the boss/manager/project lead/ whoever is in charge of leading the production effort – that person needs to have a clear, and on-target vision, and be able to communicate and uphold/enforce that vision to the development teams, and the sales force, and the shareholders. That’s the talent a leader needs.

      Not to downplay the role of the developer- that role is of critical importance too- but with clear, focused, and direct leadership, the developer shouldn’t have to worry about identifying good overall product ideas- they should be freed of those concerns (outside of having the ability to make suggestions and offer opinions) to concentrate on what they do best- executing that vision – making the nuts and bolts work. The qualtiy control concerns should come from the leadership side of things for the most part- I think that another lesson we should take from Steve Jobs is that leadership needs to be intimately involved- I doubt he was pushing engineers away from the keyboard and drawing up circuit diagrams himself, but you can bet he spent a good amount of time looking over their shoulders, talking about what they were working on and how it fit into the larger context, and had enough firsthand knowlege to communicate with his engineers on their level rather than with typical corporate manager-babble that pervades today’s business environment.


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