The perils of name-checking Steve Jobs

By Harmesh Bhambra, Class of 2016

By Harmesh Bhambra, Class of 2016

A specter is haunting business, a specter of Steve Jobs.

For a man who was monstrously successful at everything it may seem natural for the business commentariat to dissect and analyze Steve Jobs’ career. There must be ‘strategies’ that can be applied to any business. We can all ‘be’ Steve Jobs in our career. Forbes offers ‘The Ten Life Lessons From Steve Jobs We Should Never Forget’ including ‘Don’t tolerate bozos around you.’ This is business, over-complicated by its worst players.

In my two years at Booth I have found that lots of people are similarly captivated by Steve Jobs. I don’t think there is a class where either the professor or a student has not mentioned the great man. Even in Competitive Strategy, the professor devoted a whole class to him. A lot of time is spent mulling Steve Jobs, but little insight is yielded. I am reminded when in LEAD, I said that Steve Jobs was an example of a successful businessman displaying little ‘warmth’, implying that ‘warmth’ was not a necessary trait for success. I immediately regretted that banal comment. There are perils of name-checking Steve Jobs.

It is well known that we are prone to the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples when evaluating a decision. We bias information that is recent to the detriment of pertinent past examples or lessons from history. Because Steve Jobs was the most successful businessman of our time, we immediately look to him when we think about how to make our businesses successful.

There was obviously something unique about Steve Jobs; a combination of incredible charisma, great taste and intelligence. However, when we think about what we can learn from Steve Jobs, taking a calligraphy class or LSD is not the answer. Instead, we must look specifically at what he did in business and take lessons from that.

What would Steve not think? Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures.

What would Steve not think? Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures.

For example, particularly given the current bout of unicorns in Silicon Valley, one is drawn to the relentless focus on operational details by Steve Jobs at Apple. More time focused on the product, marketing and talent rather than on employee perks, such as coffee baristas and ping pong tables. Efficiency in use of capital meant that Apple’s two founders and the chosen CEO owned about 40% of the company on the eve of its IPO in 1980. By the end of its first day of float the stock had increased in value by almost 32% leaving the company with market value of $1.8bn. A valuation, measly in today’s private markets, for a company that had already pioneered the mass-market computer with Apple II and had taken on established companies, such as IBM. VCs, unicorns and Apple imitators should take note.
By focusing on what Steve Jobs did at Apple rather than his personality and story, we may draw some lessons that may actually help us in business.

Harmesh is a second-year MBA student