Working for Steve Jobs: Part One

Reposted from July, 2012:

One of the most frequent questions I get when presenting the secrets of Apple Marketing at keynotes and other events is “What was it like working for Steve Jobs?”  As we near the one year anniversary of the death of Steve Jobs, I thought it might be interesting to use my blog to share some of those recollections.  So here is my first installment, entitled “How Came to Work for Steve Jobs”  Keep coming back for more crazy, yet true, stories about Steve.

I first met Steve Jobs over two speakerphones, one in Cupertino, California and another in my Apple company car, as I was driving south of Manchester, New Hampshire at nearly seventy miles per hour.  Steve had only a few words to say to me at that time; he simply said, “You’re absolutely right!  Come back to Apple and help me fix this place!”  I thought someone was playing a joke on me, yet my incredulous “Yeah, sure.” response changed my life. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the summer of 1997, Apple had a brush with death that was much closer than the world generally knows.  For more than 20 years Apple had defined, reshaped and cajoled the staid PC market with one innovation after the other.  It’s no exaggeration to state that the entire modern computer experience was either designed or perfected by Apple.  Yet, in the late 1990s, amid a huge worldwide expansion of computer and networking technology, Apple was staring bankruptcy squarely in the eye.  Apple’s products were suddenly overpriced, underpowered and desirable only to the most dire of fanboys. At the same time Apple experienced an epic defection of developers, who felt the future was on the so-called Wintel bandwagon. Apple did not have a product roadmap or a cohesive strategy to deal with the Windows 95 juggernaut, which had largely eliminated the decade-long Macintosh advantage.  Moreover, Apple had a new CEO, Gil Amelio, who was neither able to gain the confidence of customers, partners, and investors, nor was he able to intimidate competitors. The company recorded more than a billion-dollar loss, and it witnessed its revenue nearly cut in half in a single calendar year.

I had brushed up my resume because I could clearly see the inevitable truth: Apple was dying. To be completely honest, I was sitting on a job offer from Cisco Systems to do for them what I was doing for Apple; I was running a higher education sales territory in New England. However, before I accepted the offer, I asked my VP of Sales for an opportunity to do more than simply sell Apple’s computers; I told him that I wanted to help invent them.  I believed that I had more to offer Apple in Cupertino, but Mike told me that I was lucky to keep my job because he was about to lay off two-thirds of the remaining sales team later that week.  That news was the final straw, so I gave my two weeks notice, I accepted the Cisco offer, and I rejected a severance package, which may have saved another employee’s job for a little while longer.

About one week later, I wrote an “AppleLink” (the name for our internal Apple email system at the time) to my soon-to-be former boss, and I suggested five ways to resurrect Apple despite my pending resignation. Just before I hit “send” I decided on a whim to cc, because I knew that Steve had recently rejoined Apple as a “special advisor” to Gil Amelio. I figured that I had nothing to lose by sharing my ideas with Apple’s co-founder, yet I quickly forgot the email as I explained to my customers that I was leaving Apple. A few days later, I drove to the AutoMall in Manchester in order to find a replacement for my company car, which I had to return to Apple on the following day. On my way home, my car phone rang. That is when I met Steve Jobs over two speakerphones.

After a bit of negotiating with Steve, I accepted the challenge to help him resurrect Apple (sorry Cisco), and I consequently became part of the fairytale turnaround story that business schools will teach for decades. Without new technology available to save Apple, we did the only thing we could do.  We stalled. We trotted out the now famous “Think different.” campaign in order to cleanse people’s palettes. We washed away the multicolored logo (and by extension the memory of overpriced, underpowered, children’s computers), and we replaced it with a simple, solid black and white logo amid images of enduring heroes who had the passion, courage and dedication to change the world.  In short, we focused on improving Apple’s image while we treaded water and slowly built a better designed computer, the iMac, which would one day save the company.

Next up: what it was like to work with Steve Jobs building the iMac.

Learn more: LogRocket just published this YouTube video where I talk about some of those days at Apple working for Steve Jobs.

8 thoughts on “Working for Steve Jobs: Part One”

  1. My understanding is that Apple was founded in 1976, so in 1997 it would have been 21, not 30 years old.
    Other than that, thank you for this, and what I hope will be an interesting set of recollections of your time with Apple.

  2. yeah i love the mindset Steve appeared to have when it came to work. Rather than be a drone your whole life why not try to change the world for the better and leave having done something meaningful rather than dance to the beat of someone else’s drum!

  3. The Think Different commercial, still showed the multi colored logo, wasn’t it?
    Thanks. I look forward for more details.

  4. Silta, if you watch the Think different commercials and advertisements carefully, you'll notice the first ones started out with the multicolored logo, but towards the later commercials the logo changed to simply black-and-white.  Good comment!

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