I think it’s safe to say that Apple’s success story has now grown to mythic proportions.
And it deserves every bit of its myth-hood: two guys in a garage start a computer company that grows to become the most valuable company on earth. (Well, it will be soon. Move over, ExxonMobil.)
Every good legend has its heroes and villains. Playing the role of villains in this tale would be John Sculley and the Apple board for being so dumb as to actually fire Steve in 1985, setting off the company’s great decline. Steve’s return 12 years later — and subsequent astronomical success of the company — proves what a boneheaded move that was, right?
Steve’s buddy Larry Ellison sure thinks so. Commenting on HP’s firing of its CEO last year, Larry said, “The HP board just made the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs many years ago. That decision nearly destroyed Apple and would have if Steve hadn’t come back and saved them.”
Even John Sculley, master conspirator, now says it was a mistake to drive Steve away.
Well, not so fast, fellas. Steve’s firing is actually the reason Apple rules the world today — though admittedly, the players could not have foreseen this at the time.
Steve was pushed out because, brilliant as he was, he wasn’t all that brilliant on the business side. He was costing the company a ton of money. There was a legitimate fear that if he didn’t leave, he’d literally run the company into the ground. It was heart-wrenching, but out he went.
In exile, Steve founded NeXT Computer, Inc. NeXT was an exciting new venture for him, but it was also humbling. He didn’t have zillions of dollars to burn, so he had to court investors like Ross Perot and Canon. Financially, NeXT was a constant struggle.
This was Steve’s remedial course in Business 101. Obviously he’d learned a ton by building Apple, but NeXT taught him new levels of responsibility. Now, in a world filled with computer companies, he was going to build a new one from scratch. He’d have to stretch budgets to keep innovating through the dark times. He’d have to keep employees happy and inspired. He’d have to create new partnerships. Steve’s business skills improved immensely as a result.
With NeXT, Steve would experience something he’d never really known before: failure. At least failure in the sense that his beautiful new computer didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The press paid attention, but they wrote about a struggling NeXT, not a smashing new success. At some point, Steve would be forced to give up on the hardware and concentrate on what really made NeXT special: its software.
And so, when Apple found itself floundering, desperately in need of a new direction for the Mac OS, they bought NeXT. This gave them the technology to build Mac OS X, and it also brought Steve Jobs home — a more mature, business-savvy, fire-tested Steve Jobs than had ever walked the halls of Apple before.
If Apple hadn’t sent Steve into exile in 1985, there would have been no NeXT. Mac OS X would have been very, very different. And Steve himself would have been very, very different.
You only have to listen to Steve to appreciate how this experience changed him. In his speech at Stanford’s commencement in 2008, he said:
“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
Things worked out pretty well for Steve personally too. It was while at NeXT that he met his wife and started a family.
And so, a hearty thank-you to John Sculley and the Apple board for chasing away the one man who could save the company. In the process, you set the wheels in motion to re-create the company — and re-create the man.