Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Steve (for Wick)

Many years ago, I had the great pleasure of showing Steve Jobs a laser projector prototype in our suite at a major tradeshow. When I brought him into the room wearing the customary jeans and T-shirt, my chairman tried to tell him it was a private suite, and who was he and why wasn’t he wearing a suit like everyone else? Interestingly, none of this seemed to bother him, as he was obsessing on the projection system at the time.

I had met Steve 3 times in 23 years and while I doubt he ever remembered me, I was always stunned by his perception, vision, and imagination tempered by ability to focus (obsess) on core over context. He lived next door to a fellow CEO Wick Goodspeed near downtown Palo Alto for many years, and because he didn’t have a pool (his yard was an orchard) he and his family often used Wick's. Wick was a wonderful friend to many people, a role model, and he is sadly missed. I asked Steve once if he was left- or right-handed (so many of the original Apple team were lefties)--and without missing a beat he said ambidextrous. :)

Now, while many people will tell you the stores are all true, I would observe that all visionaries can be difficult because they are obsessed--I'm sure Gandhi was a pain at weddings, too. My limited observations of him were augmented by working with a lot of his close co-workers and meeting a lot of the classic Apple alumni, including one of my portfolio CEOs and my current business partner Scull, who had the dubious pleasure of channeling go-to market strategies to Steve’s ideas...you can imagine!

My final meeting with him was a few years back, still related to the cell phone projector idea--I was in big trouble with my family because it was my birthday and the only time I could meet him was at night, so I was missing my cake. I waited in the lobby for quite a while, and since no one was there I started playing the Bosendorfer piano, which surprisingly wasn't locked (normally in the US, playing the piano in a big hotel gets the "may I help you?" and dirty look), so I figured this might accelerate my meeting so I could get back to my birthday cake. After another 10 minutes or so I realized he was listening, so I stopped and figured I was in big trouble, but apparently not. I discovered later that he loved art and artists--he wasn't artistic himself, at least not in the traditional sense, but that made art even more important to him, as evidenced in Apple's designs.

Apple, even with Steve's vision, is impossible for a startup to do business with--they pay well, they have massive volumes, and they value performance and quality over price, but they are relentless in their pursuit of excellence. And startups beware--they will suck you dry like any big company, only worse. So, excited as I was, I really didn't want to get into bed with them, but I wanted to see if the idea really had legs or was crazy. What intrigued Steve was not the projector or the laser or the cool tech, but the key issue that a laser is always in focus, so when you project a beam the image is always in focus, even if its on an irregular surface like a sphere, cylinder, or someone's T-shirt. He immediately leapt to the idea of projecting clothes onto people, and structural drawings on old buildings and at least 20 other "apps." The other amazing thing about him, was his willingness to take a big bet early on--he bought the little startup that invented the multi-touch technology, ploughed years of resources and cash into it, and made it the key selling point of the iPhone. He did the same thing many years before with a crazy idea completely computer animated movies buying the property from George Lucas after Lucas' financial advisors insisted he sell the dog that was draining his cash--10 years of pouring money into it made Steve CEO of 2 public companies simultaneously.

Love him, hate him (and the same people did both), he was truly a national treasure, and an inspiration to us hardware guys who struggle for attention against the white noise of the Internet. In my final meeting, I made the mistake of answering his "how important are we to you" question by saying "I’m giving up my birthday with my family to be here with you at night, isn’t that a good start?"--he ignored that and moved on. I found out later that it was his birthday, too--oops….