What Small Businesses Can Learn from Steve Jobs


“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

Yesterday’s announcement of Steve Jobs’ untimely, but not unexpected, passing sent shockwaves through the business and tech worlds. Rarely has one person been so closely and so positively associated with a global brand as Jobs was with Apple.

There have already been a lot of tributes extolling his impact on the way we work, listen to music, read, and generally relate to our technology, our products and our brands. But as small and midsize business owners and managers, and as branding and marketing professionals, what can we learn from his career? And how do we apply those lessons to our own work?

A Jobs Program That Really Works

1. Be obsessed – Jobs was infamous for his so-called “attention to detail.” This obsession extended to both Apple’s renowned products and to the creative and business processes that spawned them. He had to have his thumbs in pretty much every Apple pie at some point or other, which apparently drove people nuts. But this has obviously paid off in spades, as demonstrated by the products themselves, and by Apple’s bottom line.

Pay attention to – and get involved with – everything that goes on inside your company, both the creative stuff (which happens at every company, not just tech and branding or design firms), and the business processes. This could obviously backfire if you’re not a tech and marketing genius, so tread lightly on the toes of your employees.

2. Design matters – A certain brand of geek thinks of Apple’s design ethos as “just,” eye candy. Style over substance. What this complaint ignores is the fact that Apple’s seamless hardware/software integration makes the products not just enjoyable to use, but fun. Exciting even. Plus every design decision is directly related to functionality, to making the software both useful and easy to use. These geeks want to have access to the guts of their machines and that’s great, but most of the rest of us just want to take our shinies out of the box and have them basically facilitate our work, not to create more maintenance and setup work that we don’t care about.

The lesson: make sure that every design decision you make has the goal of improving your customer’s experience, from the color of the counters in your storefront, to the look and feel of the buttons on your website.

3. Keep it simple – The minimalism that Apple pioneered in the post-iMac era has become sort of a tech cliché at this point, but that’s largely because it works. Modern technology is complicated under the hood and the surface-level simplicity of Apple’s products makes them seem approachable and usable. It’s almost always (almost – it took me 5 minutes to figure out how to play an audio book on my iPad yesterday) obvious what you need to do to get an Apple product to do what you want it to do.

Google learned this lesson well. While its search algorithms are more and more complex, its website and browser are dead simple. At Google.com there’s a box where you type in what you want to find, and a button to push when you’re done typing, and not very much else, really. Design and build your own products to be that simple for your customers to use and they will come.

4. Pay attention to the user experience – Make your products a joy for the customer to use – that’s a no-brainer right? But Apple’s dedication to the whole customer experience is part of what convinces people that the extra upfront investment of buying, say a Macbook instead of what we old folks used to call a PC clone, is worth it. You know that if you have a problem, you can take it to the Genius Bar at the Apple store and a friendly, young hipster will help solve it.

Make sure that every interaction your customers have with your brand sends them away – if not smiling – at least thinking “those guys really went out of their way to make this right.” Make sure that every employee from your desk to the help desk is on board with this. This helps build the perception of quality, which, as Apple demonstrates, customers will pay extra for.

5. Lead your customers – Follow your gut. If you have “it,” your customers will follow your brand, even into uncharted waters. Remember in 1998, when those ridiculous-looking iMacs came out – without floppy drives!!!? Or how wacky was it to think that anyone would spend $200+ on a glorified Walkman that you had to plug into your computer? And how many people who aren’t high-powered business execs really need a Blackberry-type smartphone that their IT department hates? And finally, who’s gonna spend $600 to read ebooks when the Kindle is out there for less than $150?

Every one of these products seemed like a disaster waiting to happen when they were announced – people mocked the iPad mercilessly before they got to actually use it. But Jobs had, like, a 6th sense for knowing where he could lead the market, and he went where that sense led him, even when it seemed like a surefire catastrophe. But in the end, Apple made the mp3 player, smartphones for everyone, and tablet computing markets profitable, pretty much single handedly.

6. Learn to present ­– Jobs is famous for his “reality distortion field.” This is how he was able to convince people that those craaaaazy ideas from #5 could help turn a struggling cult company into one of the most valuable brands on the planet. Jobs was a master at presenting his products and himself. He may or may not have been a natural, but he honed this skill over the years.

Video of the events, interviews and panels are on the internet. Compare the old ones to the recent ones. See how his style and personal brand evolved over the decades. Start integrating these techniques into your own presentations.

7. Steal from the best and apply lessons 1 through 6 to your new acqusition – One of the stickiest knocks on Apple is that they stole all their best ideas from other companies or people. The Graphical User Interface and mouse, for example. That may or may not be true, but you can fact check me right now on your Xerox Alto.

Go ahead. I’ll wait for you.

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