“I have sold more copies of this book than I have sold Harry Potter,” a bookseller in Connaught Place informs me, smiling affectionately at Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. The success of that book has been a bit of a surprise. Yes, the maverick founder of Apple was a high-profile figure but books had been written about him before. And the Isaacson book ticked all the wrong boxes as far as the perceived “general” reader in India went—it was thick (close to a thousand pages), stayed in hardcover for way too long (more than a year) and well, because it was in hardcover, it was expensive. And yet, in a market notorious for not reading “big” non-fiction books and being shockingly price-sensitive, Steve Jobs’s biography was a rage.
Market researchers might come up with a host of reasons for this—the fact that the book came hot on the heels of his demise, the fact that it was written by a high-profile author, and much more. But if you ask me, the real reason was that this was the first high-profile book about Jobs that was released after the entrepreneurship wave—especially of the digital kind—hit India in around 2011, when a lot of people decided to venture out to do their own thing instead of toeing the corporate line. And it is with this crowd that Apple’s co-founder strikes a special chord. A chord that the likes of even Bill Gates and Marc Zuckerberg or even Messers Page and Bryn (of Google fame) cannot strike.
What makes the man such an inspiration, well ahead of a very distinguished crowd? Well, there are several reasons, but seven in particular stand out:
His ‘normal’ upbringing
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Jobs did not come up with anything close to a privileged upbringing. He was adopted and while some would claim that he was spoiled silly by his doting parents, the fact is that he had a relatively normal background. For many struggling entrepreneurs, he therefore represents hope of succeeding even when you are not born with a silver spoon in your mouth.
His lack of an MBA or special education
Jobs’s flunking college is the despair of many advisors and academicians who claim that it makes many youngsters question the value of education. “Hey, Jobs didn’t finish college, did he? And look what he did!” is a taunt that rings through the corridors of many educational institutions. But it is also a rallying cry for anyone starting out his business—a friend of mine who works in a bank says that the number of undergraduates applying for business loans has gone up exponentially in the last five years. “They don’t think a formal degree is necessary to run a business,” he said wearily. His problem? Jobs proved them right.
He always was the underdog
As if not having a privileged background and a less-than-complete formal education were not enough, Jobs cemented his status as the ultimate underdog taking on an establishment with the products he released. The Mac was supposed to be useless for mainstream users who did not ‘want’ computers in their houses, the iBook and iMac were supposed to have no chance against Windows machines, the iPod was supposed to be fodder for CD players, the iPhone was supposed to be reduced to dust beneath the chariot wheels of Nokia and BlackBerry, and of course, adults did not watch animated films like Toy Story. If there’s anyone entrepreneurs love, it is the underdog, because that is what so many of they themselves are—small enterprises going up against well-entrenched and often much bigger competition. Jobs’s success against the likes of ibm and Nokia (both of whom were leaders in their segments and ended up exiting them) is the ultimate David and Goliath story.
He really thought different
Perhaps one of the biggest challenge any entrepreneur faces is trying to convince people, particularly investors initially, that his or her product or service is actually worth investing in. There is a delicious irony here—the investor might actually claim to be seeking to invest in something very different, but will actually be terrified of putting their money into something unfamiliar. Jobs’s success with products seemed to defy conventional wisdom, something that is often invoked to justify what the audience might see as eccentricity. His ‘the customer does not know what they want’ is one of the quotes most used in presentations by new businesses who use it to deflect cynicism about consumers’ willingness to accept a product.
He was awesome on stage
They might not admit it, but many entrepreneurs are actually terrified of the stage. They would rather be in the background, tinkering with whatever they make, or working out strategies. And yet (they might not admit it too) most of them would love to be on stage, making a knowledgeable audience hang on to every word they speak. Jobs did just that, frequently, and on his own terms. Product presentations were relatively dull affairs until he came along and added a ton of flair and excitement to them. Small wonder that many new enterprises these days opt for high-octane presentations to launch their products or services. Not too many are able to command the attention on stage that Jobs could, but—love the stage or hate it—he remains the role model for most in this regard, right from the slides with oversized fonts to the ‘black T-shirt and jeans’ dress code in some cases.
He was mortal
Yes, people adored his showmanship and his vision, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Jobs could also be harsh, rude and sometimes way too demanding. His penchant of allegedly criticising colleagues in public and sometimes claiming credit for others’ ideas (Wozniak and Ive have both complained of this tendency) also made him less than popular. And yet, at the same time, it made him appear more human to many. He was not a picture of distant perfection but came with flaws, and some were massive. Regrettably, some even try to replicate his flaws—executives showing petulance and impatience at anything that did not meet their ‘standards’ or working odd hours (and forcing their teams to work along) are in some perverse way living out their own little Jobsian fantasy. Minus the vision, alas.
He failed spectacularly...and came back
Rare is the new businessperson who does not bite the dust in a venture. And this is one of the biggest reasons why so many entrepreneurs idolise Jobs rather than the equally—or perhaps even more—successful Bill Gates. For unlike Gates, who, barring the odd blip, did consistently well, Jobs failed spectacularly, not least because of his sometimes rude and insensitive behaviour, which did not endear him to many people. So much so that he was ousted from the very company he had helped create. Even when he started his own enterprise, NeXT, he did not exactly taste overwhelming success, with a number of products biting the dust. Although Pixar did better, Jobs was not considered a tech role model until his surprising return to Apple in 1997 (in fact, till that time, one of the most read business books around was Odyssey—Pepsi to Apple, that was written by the man who played a key hand in his ouster from Apple, John Sculley). What followed, of course, was history. And it is perhaps this ability to come back from almost the dead that many entrepreneurs love most about Jobs—the refusal to be written off. And it is what keeps many pegging away in the face of setbacks. “Hey, it’s cool. Steve Jobs was sacked by Apple,” was what an editor once told me when he had to shut down a tech portal.
You are adopted, you do not have all the money in the world to play around with, you flunk college, you seemingly lose your way in life, you come back to create a great company, you manage to get yourself kicked out of that very company, you try to launch another company with limited success, your former company calls you back, you redefine tech history, and thereafter the crowd really goes mad the moment you step on stage....
That is the stuff which most entrepreneurs’ dreams are made of. Steve Jobs lived it. Which is why the Apple’s employee number zero (yes, he really was that, because Steve Wozniak was given Employee Number One as per popular vote) is a hero for Indian entrepreneurs.
Nimish Dubey, Tech blogger