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How one question from Steve Jobs set Apple up for a $1 trillion win

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/8/2018 Steve Strauss
A photo of Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs projects behind current CEO Tim Cook on Sept. 12, 2017. Apple has become the first U.S. company to be valued at $1 trillion. © Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP A photo of Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs projects behind current CEO Tim Cook on Sept. 12, 2017. Apple has become the first U.S. company to be valued at $1 trillion.

If you read this column regularly, I bet you are a lot like Steve Jobs, except that you never failed as massively as he did, nor did you learn lessons as well as he did, nor did you succeed as wildly as he did. But then, neither did I and neither did most of us.

One thing is certain: Jobs was an iconoclast from the start. College wasn’t really a fit, so he dropped out. After that, he bummed around for a while, hanging out everywhere from his mom’s garage to an ashram in India. Eventually the nascent computer industry of the '70s called, so he settled in the Bay Area and teamed with his pals Steve Wozniak and Ron Wayne to start a little computer business in the aforementioned garage.

The first problem they encountered was that Wayne was a poor fit from the start. A mere 10 days after becoming a partner, he asked to be cashed out. The Steves agreed, and paid him back his $2,300 for his 10% of the “company." No one ever really heard from Wayne again.

His $2,300?

It would be worth $22 billion today.

To say that Jobs had some ups and downs in his life as an entrepreneur generally, and as CEO of Apple specifically, would be putting it mildly. Take getting fired for instance. A mere nine years after launching Apple, Jobs was fired from his own company.

Why?

A main reason was that he had bet big on the wrong product, a massive failure dubbed Lisa. This pre-Mac computer weighed 48 pounds and cost an even more massive $10,000. Corporations were massively uninterested in buying a super-expensive, jumbo computer. Only a couple thousand Lisa units were sold. The rest were buried in the Utah desert.

Few people could withstand such a huge failure in judgment and execution, and Jobs was not one of them.

Jobs returned 11 years later, but only because the company he had founded was in dire straits. Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate just how dire the situation was for Apple in 1997. Consider:

• There was just enough cash on hand to keep operations afloat for 90 days;

• The launch of Windows 95 dwarfed the comparatively tiny Apple, making it even more irrelevant;

• Apple had created a glut of mediocre products that confused the marketplace.

Desperate and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the company had little choice but to bring back its founder and visionary.

More: How Tim Cook and the iPhone made Apple America's first $1 trillion company

More: Apple at $1 trillion: Putting Apple's milestone into context

More: How much is $1 trillion? Well, Apple could buy everyone in San Francisco an apartment.

But which Jobs would they get? The out-of-control, brash, hard-driving CEO who had big dreams and a bigger ego, or a more grown-up leader who would be able to get them to the promised land?

A little of both, as it turns out – but more the latter than the former, given Apple’s valuation recently of $1 trillion.

Carmine Gallo has studied Jobs and Apple for years. He has written several books on the subject, including The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. (I have also had Gallo on my podcast. You can hear the fascinating interview here.)

Gallo says that the secret to Apple’s incredible turnaround was not just Jobs' charisma and smarts, but also his ability to get everyone motivated behind a vision bigger than either money or the business.

“In my keynotes about inspirational leadership, I often show a grainy video clip of Steve Jobs holding a small staff meeting in 1997. Jobs had returned to Apple about eight weeks earlier. The video shows Jobs delivering an intense and passionate message to a small group of employees. The passion he showed and the question he raised would inspire his team to dig their way out of the hole," Gallo says.

Jobs tells the staff at the meeting that he has decided to eliminate 70% of Apple’s products. It was “too much stuff” and confused consumers and employees alike. Instead, he decided, they needed to focus on the 30% of their products that were “gems.”

But here’s the critical thing, and the reason why Apple eventually became the world’s first trillion-dollar company. Jobs says he slashed those 70% of products because they didn’t suit the question they all had to answer, individually and collectively:

Who is Apple, and where do we fit in the world?

The iPhone 4 was released on June 24, 2010. © Paul Sakuma, AP The iPhone 4 was released on June 24, 2010.

“What we’re about,” Jobs said, “is not making boxes for people to get their jobs done — although we do that well. But Apple is about something more than that. Apple’s core value is that we believe people with passion can change the world for the better. Those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who actually do.”

Apple answered the question, changed direction, focused on its new vision and differentiator, and never looked back.

So, the question for you is: Who is your company? What are your gems? What is your purpose? What is unique? How are you reinforcing that, and how are you undermining that?

Answer those questions, and while you likely won’t make it to a trillion, at least you will be on your way.

Steve Strauss, @Steve Strauss on Twitter, is a lawyer specializing in small business and entrepreneurship who has been writing for USATODAY.com for 20 years. Email: sstrauss@mrallbiz.com. You can learn more about Steve at MrAllBiz.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

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