February 7, 2012
Impossible Happens

"Hey Bill, it’s Steve…"

So much has been written and said about Steve Jobs and the success he had bringing Apple back from the brink and making it what it is today. But there’s one element of the turnaround that, on a human level, is maybe as remarkable as the technological vision and operational excellence that made it all happen.

By the middle of 1997, Jobs was back in control of the company he founded. Sounds great on paper, or in retrospect, but at that point Apple was a past-its-prime disaster on the verge of bankruptcy. Yesterday’s version of being “back in control” of Kodak, or orchestrating a palace coup to seize the throne of Palm. Give Thorsten Heins a call, ask how the view looks from here. Maybe he’ll show you a video.

But here’s the beauty part, not only did Steve Jobs have to find a way to fix Apple’s products and restore its broken relationship with all but the most hardcore of customers and fans, he had to do something that must have seemed distasteful to the point of impossibility - he had to pick up the phone and ask Bill Gates for help.

Think about that. As a critical part of saving his company, one of a million necessary tasks, he had to appeal to someone who he - at the time, anyway - had to have truly hated. An arch rival, someone he believed had stolen from him, and then used that theft to win, to become more successful and larger than Steve Jobs, a prideful guy, would ever be in a million years.

I read the other day that Apple’s iPhone business is now larger than all of Microsoft. That is a jaw-dropping fact, and something that would never, ever have been considered possible in 1997. If you had put 1,000 people in a room back then and laid out what actually happened over the next 15 years as theory, maybe one person believes it possible, and if Steve Jobs isn’t in the focus group, it’s unanimous. No way. Never. Fantasy land. Like taking Paul Allen’s boat to the moon.

Here’s what Jobs said at Macworld Expo in Boston, when he announced his truce and accommodation with Gates, who also appeared - via satellite, on an enormous screen towering over the vanquished, one and all:

"If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose. And we have to embrace a notion that, for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job, and if others are going to help us, that’s great, cause we need all the help we can get, and if we screw up and we don’t do a good job, it’s not somebody else’s fault, it’s our fault."

Apply the personal aspect of that to your own life. You are at your ultimate low point, desperation reigns, things couldn’t possibly get any worse. And what do you have to do as part of surviving? Not winning, mind you, surviving. You have to call the guy who - more than anyone else - put you there, put you up against it, and you have to ask him for help. We all have these people in our lives, impediments and obstacles, pain and anger. Bad feelings. Think about them, imagine yourself making that call, and last resort plea, and how it must have felt.

Steve Jobs saw that there’s a bigger picture, always. So you capitulate. You surrender the righteous fight, apologies to the angels. You agree to make this guy’s crappy Internet browser the default on your gorgeous machines and stand there with a straight face and try to sell it to the faithful. You gulp hard and get through it, soldier on, not to “win” at that point, or even dream of winning, just to keep the lights on.

And then, a couple of months later, another bitter rival who was doing pretty well, Michael "Dude you’re getting a" Dell, offers helpful public counsel that you should just shut your company down and return the money to shareholders and, at the time, that idea makes more sense to most people than your new “Think Different” image campaign. Snickers and scorn, quaint and misplaced nostalgia. What do you do? You put your head down and move forward. You take one step, and then another, you keep walking and, eventually, the scenery changes. Conventional wisdom is, ultimately, found wanting on wise.

There are so many lessons associated with Steve Jobs and what he did and achieved at Apple, but here’s a pretty human and applicable one - no one is coming to save you. You are on your own, we all are. No one is going to show up some morning and pull the novel you’ve been dreaming about writing out of your head, raise your kids, brush your teeth or fix your broken company.

Didn’t matter who Steve Jobs was, or what he’d done, the success he’d already achieved, how much personal wealth he had in the bank. He had to make that call. “Hey Bill, it’s Steve…”

There is no cavalry coming over the hill on a rescue mission. [Unless you have a substance abuse problem and have recently “agreed to appear in a documentary about addiction,” then some help might be on the way.]

It was up to Steve, he was in control, and he did what he had to do. When you approach life that way, sometimes you get there. Sometimes, the impossible happens.

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