The Day Steve Jobs Called
– In memory of Steve Jobs, first appeared in Forbes China
My second favorite inanimate object while I was in college was a white Les Paul Classic electric guitar. I connected this beloved instrument to an over-sized amplifier, several analog effects pedals and a 4-track cassette recorder that allowed me to catalog my heavy-handed rock songs for all mankind to admire at some point in the future (still yet to come). One fall morning 20 years ago I was camped out in my dormitory room playing as loudly as I could when the phone rang. I hastily put the guitar down and lurched over to grab the phone. (mind you, twenty years ago the phone I grabbed was not mobile but a traditional fixed line telephone which is quasi-extinct these days)
“Yes, hello”, I barked. “Hi, could I speak with Bill please” the caller replied.
“Yeah that’s me...” I said, distracted by the howling sound the guitar was making as it was placed too close to the amplifier -- weeeeeeeeeeeee... “But hold on...” I interrupted, then ran back to the guitar and unplugged the amp, grabbed the phone again and said “Sorry, who is this?” And then came one of the most unforgettable sentences I’d heard up to that point in my life:
“Bill, this is Steve Jobs and I hear you are considering buying one of our NeXT computers.”
To clarify, NeXT is the computer company Steve Jobs founded when he left Apple in 1988 (and before he came back to re-create Apple). NeXT was a company surrounded in controversy from the start, since Jobs was basically forced to leave Apple in 1985, and was never regarded as a big success compared to the expectations (and investments) given to it.
Regardless, after that phone call the NeXT Cube computer became my favorite toy at university, and it was an incredibly good computer. (In fact, Tim Berners-Lee used a NeXT computer to write the world’s first web browser). Eventually I figured out how to plug my electric guitar into the NeXT to make one giant super-toy. These were good times.
This story is hard to get people to believe today since it is so very improbable, so unnecessary, so absurd -- why would Steve Jobs, the world’s most incredible businessman and one of the world’s richest people ever pick up the phone and call a lone computer science graduate to push a 3000 dollar computer?
It turns out that I was lucky to be at exactly the right place at the right time -- my father worked at a company supplying parts to NeXT and told Steve Jobs at a business meeting that I was trying to decide which new computer to buy. I’d also already met him before a couple years earlier when he gave a speech at my school, so he knew I existed. And I was studying computer science at a time when it was key for NeXT to get computer programmers to adopt these new machines. Incredibly lucky.
But the main point of this story is not to make me sound like a cool guy who “knows” Steve Jobs (though I don’t mind the conclusion). The point is to highlight a few things about Steve Jobs the entrepreneur that I’ve always found inspirational:
Failure is such an under-valued commodity, especially in China where failing comes with such shame. I believe most entrepreneurs go into a new business convinced they will not fail and then act obsessively at every turn to avoid failure. But when they fail (and they almost all do) the really great ones like Steve Jobs take the failure, learn from it, and carry on. Steve Jobs has said that the shame of being forced out of Apple led him to consider moving away from Silicon Valley, but instead he stayed and started over with NeXT and Pixar. Failing at Apple was the best thing that ever happened to him – ironically it later on led to him saving Apple and creating one of the most highly valued companies in the world.
The fact that he picked up the phone to call a college kid speaks wonders. In a sense it should not be surprising since and his attention to detail and hands-on (some would say controlling) nature are now the stuff of legends and textbooks. Second, he is a good salesman. He was not above picking up the phone to try to convince a single potential thought leader to support his company.
For an entrepreneur just starting out (and in Steve Jobs’ case, just starting up for the second time), engaging on a personal level with an interested customer is an invaluable experience that CEOs should never be too high and mighty to give up.
He won me over.
Realistically, calling one college student from Steve Jobs’ office wasn’t going to do too much for the future of NeXT. Most business leaders would have dismissed this strategy as impractical and with very little effect – but Steve Jobs recognized the potential in personally reaching out to even one person.
Right now we are in an age where companies and CEOs regularly use social media to connect with their customers in a casual and timely way, but twenty years ago, a CEO and his company’s outreach efforts were decidedly separate. While NeXT didn’t achieve a high degree of financial success, it held on to its loyal base of followers and fans ready to buy into his every next step. Steve Jobs took the risk of personally placing himself as the leader, the advocate and the symbol for his company – and this personal touch paid off.
Of course you can’t start by expecting it and in fact you have to convince your entire being that you will never fail, never give up, never stop -- but if fate creates failure you can count yourself a lucky person because it will teach you more than any success ever can.
If you still can’t tell, I am an unashamedly huge fan of Steve Jobs. This guy has touched so many parts of my life, starting twenty years with that one call. I am typing this article on my MacBook Air, trying not to get distracted by texts coming in to my iPhone, about to start reading a new book on my iPad.
It’s odd to think that the last time I spoke to “Steve”, we used a landline and chatted about a computer that is now a museum piece. Although this phone call happened twenty years ago, when Jobs was working on the soon-to-be obsolete NeXT and I still thought I could be a rock star, the lessons that he taught me are relevant even to today.
– first appeared in Forbes China
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