I just finished reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. I have always been in love with Apple products and the company’s creative marketing. I knew Steve was a visionary, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself into his biography that I realized what type of character he truly was, and how he proved that sometimes you have to be the hard-nosed boss to get things done. Much has been said about Steve’s life and his work tactics. Some completely disagree with how he handled things, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Here are the lessons I think any business owner can learn from the Apple guru.
Focus On Just a Few Areas
When Steve returned to Apple in 1997 after being booted from the company, one of the first steps he took was to refocus the company’s product offerings. He asked his managers to make a list of the 10 items Apple should work on next, and then he cut off the bottom seven, leaving only three. Those three became the company’s new focus.
Business owners should remember that they can’t be everything to everyone. This model rarely works. Instead, make a list of all your product categories or services and determine which ones you should truly focus on. Remember the Pareto Principle: 80% of your profits generally come from 20% of your offerings. Strengthen the 20% and lose some of the 80%. It’s just as important to know what NOT to spend time on as it is to know what to spend time on.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
Hand in hand with focus comes simplicity. At a time when tech products featured all sorts of buttons, knobs, screens, bells and whistles, Steve pared Apple’s designs down to the basics—even eliminating the on/off switch from the iPod. Steve believed in Leonardo da Vinci’s philosophy that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Simplify every aspect of your business and you’ll see greater results. If you pack your shop with an overwhelming assortment of merchandise from top to bottom, your customers won’t know where to focus and might leave. If you make your web visitors click through an endless stream of links before they can check out, you’ll lose them. Build displays that are simple and eye-catching with a clear focus. Make your website easy to navigate with a home button and check-out button on every page. Keep your policies simple; don’t frustrate customers with a tedious return process.
Make the Outside Just as Important as the Inside
Steve understood that people really do judge a book by its cover. Apple’s products are not only elegant in design, but they are elegant in packaging as well. Customers know they are getting something special when they caress the smooth clear case of an iPod or carefully unbox their new MacBook Pro. Unwrapping an Apple product is like unwrapping a Christmas present.
Storeowners need to take this to heart and remember that what’s on the outside of their business is just as important as what’s on the inside. Too often, retailers become blinded to the cobwebs around their front windows or the peeling paint on their signs. Or a shop’s exterior doesn’t represent what’s inside. A store that sells elegant home decor needs to have a front entrance that tells that story even before customers step through the door. Carry your story outside through signage, awnings, planters, outdoor merchandise and more. And don’t ever choose an unappealing location just because the rent is cheap! Pay extra for first impressions!
Don’t Compromise on Excellence
Steve was famous for making changes to designs at the last minute, or getting his employees to do the impossible. Yes, to some, he might have gone about this the wrong way, but the results were clear—fabulous designs that wowed the public. He pushed people to go above and beyond what seemed reasonable, and employees surprised themselves when they realized it could be done. Although this often resulted in extra expenses, Steve didn’t sweat the added costs. He believed that if you made great products, profits would follow.
For business owners, the takeaway is to always strive to create the very best product or experience you can. Never settle for mediocre. Constantly re-evaluate your services and offerings and ask yourself if you can do better. Can you do it easier, faster, bigger? Watch what others are doing and aim to go a step beyond. Steve wasn’t the first to create a portable music player or a cell phone, but today more people own an iPod or an iPhone than any other models.
Serve the Customer from Beginning to End
One of Apple’s distinctions from other tech companies was that it insisted on creating products from beginning to end, integrating all aspects of the systems. When Apple designed its first computer, it not only built the hardware but the software as well. Apple products only used Apple operating systems, thereby ensuring that the products would operate seamlessly. When Steve designed the iPod, he also created iTunes to make the entire process of buying and playing digital music easy for everyone to use.
The key here is to make the customer experience enjoyable from beginning to end. Greet each person warmly. Know your customers and speak to them by name. Whenever possible, have a human answer the phone rather than a machine. Don’t pass someone off to different departments; handle the complaint yourself. Be sure everyone on the staff has the same knowledge and follows the same procedures. You don’t want the customer to say, “Well, Bill told me I could have the shipment sent on Tuesday, and now you say it won’t be delivered until next Friday.”
Surround Yourself with the Best
In one infamous company meeting, Steve brought together his employees and told half the staff, “You’re B level players. We only want A level players on the team. So today we’re letting you go so you can work for other companies.” Steve believed that A level players liked to work only with other A level players. He also saw how mediocre employees were kept around because managers were too polite to reprimand or fire when needed. As Steve observed, when a team grows, it’s too easy to put up with a few B players, but then more B players move into the ranks and soon you’re getting C players on the team as well.
In many small businesses, employees are often relatives or friends of the owners. This can make it tough for the owner to make hard decisions if an employee is not working out. Often an owner becomes friends with his or her staff rather than developing a boss-employee relationship. It’s important to keep employees accountable for their actions. Plus, you want to make sure you’re hiring the best person for the job and not just someone who happens to be related to you. After all, it’s your business that will suffer if the employee fails. Another way to use A players is to make sure people are placed in positions that use their best skills. Just because their job title might not include a certain task, if they’re strong at it, let them handle that task.
Continue to Innovate
Steve knew that the tech industry is a cutthroat business. Companies are always monitoring their competition. Steve would often say, “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” He knew he couldn’t just sit back and enjoy the profits of a good product years on end. He understood how important it was to create something new and better each year, even if it meant sales of the previous design would slow down.
In our industry, companies need to remember that customers always want something new and they expect vendors and retailers to deliver. You can’t expect to continue making profits on a design from three or four years ago; you have to innovate each year. And just as Steve realized, businesses will steal your ideas. Expect that and be one step ahead of them. Keep developing and creating new products and ideas and you will stay ahead of the game.