JT Foxx: Looking back, what made Apple a successful start-up?
Steve Wozniak: Everyone thinks that from the beginning we just made all these smart decisions, but the reality was that our funder was our biggest mentor. He explained that we needed to hire the right people to run a technology company, and that included a president to oversee the different departments, keep things moving in the right direction, and to get things done.
We hired professionals to run marketing, accounts and operations. I was already an accomplished engineer, but Steve Jobs was so young, so while I ran engineering, Steve just didn’t qualify for a title. His role was to participate in all the top levels of the company and learn it all.
In those early years we learnt why we should have a high profit margin on the product, and how this would help to fund the company as we grew. Our mentor taught us that marketing was more important than engineering, and that we needed to become a company driven by marketing if we really wanted to grow.
The result was that engineering obeyed what marketing decided the customers wanted, what they would pay for it and so on. This is where Steve really excelled. He understood these fundamentals, right down to the importance of perfection when it came to taking a picture of the product
Every line, every detail must be perfect, including getting the lighting right. Steve learnt that the quality of the box influenced how people viewed the value of what was inside the box. Even the experience of opening that box is important. All of these became key tenents at Apple, and of Steve in particular.
Was the key to a successful partnership that you were so different?
I was very lucky that Steve wasn’t an engineer or we would have been in competition with each other. And I didn’t want to do any of the business side.
This left us in control of our areas, doing things the way we wanted to. We could be ourselves and be unlimited in that sense. Partnerships work when there are complementary skills sets that don’t overlap too much.
Having said that, there were a lot of failures in our early years. Apple wasn’t an instant success. Steve was excellent at convincing people why they needed the Apple 2, but he also made mistakes. In a lot of ways, a great product carried us through.
I had developed the product, but Steve had a spirit and drive that powered us out into the market. We needed each other. Maybe someone else could have filled Steve’s shoes, but to be honest that was never a consideration. Steve was a lifetime friend. To me, a partnership is much more important at the personal level than what it means on the business level. We were lucky to have both.
How did you resolve your disagreements with Steve and who had the final say?
I’m a non-conflict person. I listen, I offer advice, and I only push for things that are really important to me. Steve was usually the smartest person in the room. In any discussion, he’d always have entered the room having spent time on the issues, and thinking through which path we should take and why.
It made him very hard to disagree with, and you’d really need a good, well thought-out argument to do so. I deferred to his judgement in many areas. As far as my own products went though, we rarely had disagreements. I remember one instance when Steve wanted to build our product a little bit weaker with two slots to plug extra things into. I wanted eight slots. Steve didn’t know computers.
As far as he was concerned you need to be able to plug in a printer and a modem. I stuck to my guns – I wanted the ability to plug in eight things. I won that one. I was the guy who knew computers, and he trusted that. It goes back to understanding your roles within the partnership.
Steve just wanted to get to market, I wanted the best products. I always saw myself as working on the best product in the world and it would take me a certain amount of time to perfect it.
I was meticulous about writing down how long a project would take, and it was always longer than Steve hoped it would be. He was incredibly impatient. He wanted everything done in a week, two weeks max. If a month went by and I was working on something that was going to take six months to do really well, Steve would start getting nervous.
He would say, “We have to go find somebody else to do this,” or, “We have to see if Bill Gates has something we can buy.” Ultimately, it was give and take.
What’s the secret to a successful start-up?
Passion. We started the company so young. We were convinced we would own the business forever. The secret was that it was a real passion. I would have done all of my work for no salary, without a company. I would have done the work at home on paper, just to prove I could.
When your passion is that strong, you go to bed thinking only about the product: How you can make it even better and more efficient. Steve liked to go for walks to think about things. He gave himself that creative and strategic space. We loved what we were doing.
What is the role of ideas in a start-up, versus execution?
Ideas are critical, but they’re also not the be-all and end-all of a great business. For every idea, there are probably about 10 000 people in the world who have the same idea.
It’s the very rare few that take the idea and realise it, meaning they turn it into something real that can be taken to market. The business that takes the idea and turns it into a product is the one deserving of results.
Is being first to market one of the most important strategic differentiators for a business?
Being first is a big advantage, but it’s not enough. You also have to do things very, very well. Just rushing out to be first allows for mistakes. You still need to take the time to create something that works well and that the market needs.
The introduction of the mouse is a good example of something we did too soon. Steve was in a hurry, and put out the mouse too soon. Too soon means competitors can copy you and put out a better product. The Mac was also a rush; it wasn’t built the right way. We could have waited just five more weeks to have a great computer.
We learnt from that though. Steve didn’t show Bill Gates the iPhone before it was out. We took longer to launch the iPhone and it took the market by storm because it was such a great product. Being first in this regard was a huge advantage, but also because we didn’t rush it. With Apple 2 we were a leader as well, the product was so good. In this case it wasn’t that we were first, but better, and that’s first in a sense too.
Apple is a master of simplicity, from the products, to packaging, to what the brand stands for. How can other brands emulate this simplicity?
We found that if one person is in charge of a product, they can pay attention to market research, throw out a lot of junk, and build something that they would want to use themselves. This also makes it much simpler to describe the product, because it’s coming from a personal place.
When Steve came back to Apple he was great at simplifying what we did. He said no to a lot of ideas, but it meant that we left things out of a product to make it usable. The result was that our products didn’t turn people off because of their complexity.
They attracted people because they were simple, intuitive and usable. Don’t add complexity just because you can. Think about the user, that’s the lesson. Build everything you do with the fewest parts. That’s the secret.
Apple has always been masterful in touching consumers at their core. What’s the secret to successful marketing?
Steve and I launched Apple at a time when a lot of other companies were launching and creating computers. They were all explaining their products from a functionality perspective, in other words, saying it did x,y and z. Our marketing mentor taught us that people didn’t care about the tech of the product. Most didn’t understand the tech anyway.
All they cared about was what the product could do for them and their lives. If you could explain how your product was going to make their lives simple in areas where things used to be hard, you would touch your consumer on a personal level.
We did that right from the start.
What was Apple’s biggest fear during the start-up years?
I believe you shouldn’t have fear – do what you love with passion, that’s how I like to approach life. Steve’s biggest fear in our early years was big companies – he felt like they were all breathing down our necks, and that their big money would create better products than us. Our mentor disagreed.
He was constantly reminding Steve that we had great people, making great products, and that all we had to do was hold onto the same percentage of the market as we had – the market was rising, which meant our business was growing.
Apple has consistently created products that change people’s lives. What’s the secret to a game-changing idea?
Whether you look at what we did at Apple, or great products from other companies, they all have one thing in common – they’re the result of a strong gut feeling.
You have to believe that a product that appeals to you, and that you would use, will sell. It starts with the understanding that there are other people just like me, facing my challenges. Sometimes this means a product that builds on something already in existence, other times it’s something revolutionary. But the secret starts with building something for yourself, instead of building it for everyone else.
Of course you have to take other people and the market into account, but if everyone on your team doesn’t share your vision, and wouldn’t buy the product themselves, you need to go back to the drawing board. Find the reason behind wanting the product, and if you can’t, move on to another idea.