Apple is renowned as a leader of innovation that embodies design, style and ease of use, but the company was not always viewed in such glowing terms. In fact, in the late 90’s Apple was on the brink of a buyout or at risk of disappearing altogether, leaving Microsoft as champion of the great “PC war.”
It was one big pivot that has since been credited as the move that saved Apple, and surprisingly, it centered on the strategic leadership of its original founder Steve Jobs.
A quick recap of Apple’s history goes something like this: Jobs started Apple with Steve Wozniak in his garage, in 1976, with the mission of creating a “computer for the rest of us.” By 1983, thanks to the Apple IIe, Apple was a household name, was on the Forbes 500 and was one of the fastest growing companies in history. By this point the emerging computer giant had met its first real competitor, the IBM PC that came onto the scene in 1980. Yet Apple continued to innovate in 1984 with its smash hit super bowl ad campaign, featuring a dystopian reality in which Apple’s new model, the Macintosh, was envisioned as the piece of technology that would change the world.
Shortly after the launch of the first Mac Steve Jobs was booted from the board and his involvement in Apple ended. His intense drive for innovation no matter the cost was just too much at that time. The Mac and Mac II experienced some level of success without Jobs at the helm, but were never the game changers Jobs had envisioned. Without Jobs’ vision, the company lost direction. Apple’s OS fell behind Microsoft’s Windows 95 in market share and in customer satisfaction, the company could not innovate fast enough, and it was unable to find a new strategic vision after losing its leader.
Steve Jobs’s return to Apple in 1997 generated such transformation that it’s been named one of the greatest business decisions of all time. As a leader, Jobs looked to surround himself with people that “thought a bit differently.” He wanted his team to dare to be bold, go against industry norms and risk failure in the pursuit of daring innovation. This was at the essence of Apple’s success. “Steve had the capacity to make you believe that nothing was impossible, to raise your expectations,” said Jean-Louis Gasse, CEO of BeOS which was passed on acquisition by Apple in favor of Job’s software company and eventually led to Jobs’ return to leadership.
Steve Jobs’ mantra “a computer for the rest of us” followed him through his leadership career and now characterizes Apple’s culture. To this end, Jobs’ strategic leadership centered on customer service, ease of use, simplicity of product and design and an investment in innovation/R&D. These are the company’s largest differentiators today. Apple prioritizes customer service through their unique retail stores that include educational opportunities and Apple expert service providers. Apple’s retail stores launched in 1997, Jobs’ first year as reincarnate CEO, bringing service to the forefront of sales.
Additionally, Jobs believed in the simplicity of product design, and a commitment to either creating products that are the best in their category or not creating them at all. This mindset made it easier for Apple employees to become experts in each product and provide a uniquely helpful customer service experience. Simplicity doesn’t stop in types of products in the product line, Steve Jobs was personally a product tester for all Apple products in order to ensure that the user experience was suited to the average technology user, not only an expert. To Apple, ease of use of a product is more important than the product itself.
Last but not least, Steve Jobs believed in innovation, a belief and investment that has empowered leaders to come, like Tim Cook, give significant support to R&D in an effort to stay two years ahead of the competition.
Steve Jobs excelled at being a visionary. Through his second term as CEO, from 1997 until shortly before his death in 2011, he led Apple to fully embrace his vision with key differentiating strategies: customer service, simplicity, ease of use and priority towards innovation. It’s rare that one person is credited with the success of a company, but this title is a familiar part of Steve Jobs’ legacy. His return to leadership in a highly transitional, critical time was just the pivotal strategic decision that Apple needed to solidify itself as an unstoppable industry leader.