Entrepreneurship Lessons from Steve Jobs

I have been reading many eulogies of Steve Jobs over the past few days. Even though Apple is the highest-valued technology company in the world, Steve Jobs’ story and style re-emphasized for me many entrepreneurship lessons that I’ve learned…and perhaps forgotten…over the years. Here are my favorites:

1. Customers don’t usually know what they want

You can’t just ask customers what they want and give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. – Steve Jobs

Early in my career, whenever I started a new project, I would make the mistake of asking the customer’s program manager to provide a specification. The program manager would, of course, dutifully do his job by dreaming up some impossible “reach goals” and a long list of features.

I would then have to push back and try to “manage” the customer’s expectations. It was a losing battle. Too often, we would sign off on the spec and, from then on, the customer’s random wish list became gospel with our engineers. We’d spend hundreds of man-hours designing, developing, testing, and debugging. We’d run late…we’d run over-budget…we’d finally cry “uncle!” and ask to either “de-scope” (simplify) the project or receive additional funding. It became a mess.

I’ve learned that customers don’t know what they want. They’re just as busy as everyone else, so they typically don’t take the necessary time to really study their options. They’re not the experts in the field…you are! Instead of analyzing the tradeoffs, it’s easier for them to request everything and the kitchen sink.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t engage in a dialogue with your customers, but definitely be the one to make the final decision on what goes into the product and what is ripped out. Your customers will thank you for taking the decision off their hands…and for delivering something simple, elegant, and functional on time.

Remember that critics in the technology press declared the iPad “DOA: Disappointing on Arrival”. Little did they know.

2. Simplicity and focus

I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, and out of curiosity comes everything. – Steve Jobs

Technology tempts us with countless avenues for distraction. Finished responding to all your email? …then surf the web while video-chatting on Skype, check out photos on Facebook, discuss on LinkedIn while simultaneously tweeting your latest thoughts and texting your spouse. If, instead, you’re in the mood for some thoughtful writing, then you can publish a blog with the click of a button! 😉

In observing my mentors and other successful people, I’ve noticed that they make room in their lives for “boredom”, or undisturbed time for thought. They make space in their schedules for quiet time alone in their office, with the computer off. They read a lot. They make an effort to have frequent lunches and dinners with their colleagues.

Most of them constantly try to simplify, simplify, simplify. They avoid unnecessary complexity, they have tricks that block out all the digital noise, and they focus intently on what’s important.

Not only did Steve Jobs products’ design epitomize this simplicity but he was also a “designer” of his daily life. He focused on his role as CEO without pontificating on politics. He decided to end his philanthropy efforts to focus instead on Pixar. He blocked out all intrusions into his personal life.

Keep things simple.

3. Price isn’t everything

In one of my previous companies, we had a couple sales people who would never hit their sales targets. It was always one excuse or another. “The product just needs one more feature,” or “I can only make this sale if we offer a 20% discount.”

My partners and I decided to not engage in a “race to the bottom” with our competitors who had established manufacturing operations in China. We continued to manufacture in New Jersey. Our products were more expensive, but we made up for it in application engineering services and advanced software.

Steve Jobs demonstrated that customers don’t always make their final decision based on price. Offer them something well above the average and they’ll pay the justifiable premium.

4. Don’t limit your thinking with dogma

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. – Steve Jobs

Entrepreneurs can take two lessons from this quote. First, don’t believe your competitors’ press releases. Your competitors look ugly when they stand naked by the mirror, too. Out of their very nature, product press releases emphasize a product’s benefits and ignore its flaws. Similarly, the technology press rarely has the inside scoop necessary to report on the challenges that companies are really facing — the employee defections, the spaghetti code, the internal politics. They usually report the good stuff that’s fed to them. Don’t believe the dogma you read in the press.

Second, don’t look to the press to show where your next breakthrough product will be. As Wayne Gretsky said, “skate where the puck is going, not where it is.” Press releases and most news stories cover products that have been under development for at least six months, usually longer. They’re “old news.” If your product development efforts imitate what you read in the press, by the time you’re done building it you’ll be two years behind everyone.

Instead, focus on “your own inner voice;” figure out what it’s saying about the future you want to build, and then work like mad to build it better than anyone else. I’m not saying that you should stick your head in the sand and ignore your industry’s press. Stay technically informed and expect occasional sparks of inspiration from others…but remember that conventional wisdom is outdated.

5. Execution is more important than being a first mover

In a similar vein, don’t believe that “It’s all been done before.” Just because one company is already working on a similar idea to yours doesn’t mean that they’ll succeed. It doesn’t mean that they’ll develop a good product or build the right team or raise the necessary funding or capture your market share. I’m not saying that you should build another Groupon copy-cat service — there are thousands of those already — but you definitely should not be scared into inaction if competitors are attempting to build similar products.

I hate the phrase “first-mover advantage”. I believe that first movers usually end up with nothing except arrows in their backs.

Apple didn’t build the first computer. They didn’t build the first digital music player. They definitely didn’t build the first smart phone. Apple was the second-mover, and it dominated all of these markets. Execution is what made the difference.

Steve Jobs’s ability to inspire, cajole, and scare excellent performance out of his team is what made the difference. Apple learned lessons from its predecessors’ mistakes, found novel solutions for its competitors’ problems and shortcomings, and then executed perfectly.

Apple’s slogan was “Think Different.” A more accurate version, I think, is “Think Better.” Over the next few weeks, whenever I use an iProduct created by Steve Jobs, I’ll try to remind myself to do just that.


Thanks to Nicole Quiterio for the idea that sparked this article.

Photo credit: www.gizmowebs.com “Life of Steve Jobs in Pictures”


10 responses to “Entrepreneurship Lessons from Steve Jobs

  1. Nicole Quiterio

    “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” -Steve Jobs
    Excellent article Erik! Glad to have planted the seed 🙂

  2. Great reflection and timely for the young graduates and new employees. I will definitely forward to my son. All the best!

  3. Pingback: Entrepreneurship Lessons from Steve Jobs « Energy.BlogNotions - Thoughts from Industry Experts

  4. I’d add one more thing, from his sister http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/opinion/mona-simpsons-eulogy-for-steve-jobs.html:
    Steve worked at what he loved. He worked really hard. Every day.
    If you love what you do, you’ll do it well.

  5. A great inspiration in our crazy times!

  6. Very inspiring and very true. Great lessons we should remind ourselves daily.

  7. Pingback: Move the Market, Don’t Let the Market Move You | Brightworks Sustainability Advisors

  8. why are you not writting on the blog. I love reading it.

    • Thanks for your interest in Entrepreneurial Energy. I have stopped blogging publicly because in October 2011 I started employment at an organization that does not permit its employees to blog without prior approval of the content. – Erik

  9. pls update more often, I miss ur posts.

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