Quit Trying to Be Like Steve Jobs
The opening question the venture capitalist asked after I sat down to be interviewed was, “How did a marketing guy end up being considered for a CEO job?”
After a 20-year career in high-tech that included managing development, running worldwide sales, and heading up marketing for a few moderately sized public companies, that’s the question the guy led with.
I won’t lie and say it wasn’t off-putting, but I was used to it. It’s a relatively common theme among the Silicon Valley geek crowd. There are exceptions, but in general, they just don’t get marketing.
That was nearly 15 years ago and things have changed. Entrepreneurs and VCs have a greater respect for marketing and communications these days. One of the reasons for that is a little company called Apple. Steve Jobs was a positioning genius, but he wasn’t the only Apple executive with marketing in his DNA.
I just watched an interview (video below) with the company’s former VP of marketing communications, Allison Johnson, and let me tell you, this woman gets marketing. Some of what she had to say could have come out of my own mouth, plus there were some great lessons from her years working with Jobs.
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Here’s my interpretation of some of the major points that I think are relevant for entrepreneurs and business leaders.
You can learn a lot from a hands-on boss. Jobs was famously hands-on about certain things, namely product design and communications. Johnson described how he once got hold of an email meant to train AT&T salespeople on how to sell the iPhone, and he edited it to make sure the product was positioned accurately.
Funny, when I ran marketing, I used to do the same thing. Drove people crazy. And, yes, I admit to being a control freak. Like it or not, I’m afraid it comes with the territory.
In any case, I’ve noticed how nervous marketers and agencies get around CEOs and I don’t know why. Sometimes, they’re better at positioning and marketing their products than the supposed experts are. And it certainly doesn’t seem like Johnson got to where she is by being proprietary about her domain.
Product development and marketing should be tied at the hip. Most people think of marketing communications as the place where products go after they’re developed and ready to be launched. Granted, that’s the way it happens in most companies, but that’s not the way it is at Apple, that’s not how it worked at my companies, and it’s not how I recommend anyone do it.
The role of marketing in planning a product rollout is to get the product positioning right. And the best way to do that is to be intimately involved with the development folks relatively early on in the process. More than anything else, your product is your brand. Likewise, it informs how you communicate everything about it to the world.
The only way to get it right and come up with the best communication strategy and content is to really connect with the product, its capabilities, its value, and what it does for customers that use it.
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Quit trying to be like Steve Jobs … or Apple. For years now, executives and entrepreneurs have been trying to be and manage like Jobs. They’ve even been trying to remake their management teams and their companies in his and Apple’s image. Truth is, it doesn’t work that way.
Johnson said, “The thing that Steve did better than anyone else is, he was his authentic self.”
Most of us don’t know ourselves very well. The better you know who you are – your purpose, what you stand for, what you believe in, your strengths and weaknesses – the more genuine you’ll be. Strive to be the best version of you, not someone else. And that’s what you should communicate to the world.
Besides, Apple is a unique company. Its culture is cult-like. Its iconic products create categories. If your products are that good, then maybe you can manage and market the way Apple does. But few companies can truly live up to that claim.
To the audience of entrepreneurs, Johnson added, “We don’t need more Apples. We need more you.”
Don’t get hung up on labels. Apparently Steve Jobs hated labels, especially words like marketing and branding. He didn’t like what they represented in some people’s minds. He wanted Apple’s marketing to add value by teaching customers about the company’s products. By showing them how they could be used and what they could do. He didn’t want them in selling mode.
I feel exactly the same way. We often fall into the labels trap, especially these days in our distracted, attention-deficit, sound-bite culture.
Truth is, just because you wear a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans and sneakers, that doesn’t make you Steve Jobs. Just because you call yourself an entrepreneur or a CEO, it doesn’t make you one. They’re nothing but labels. And they’re really no different than the way that VC judged me in the interview.
In case you’re wondering how that turned out, not only did I not let the VC rattle me, I must have had a pretty good comeback because I did get the job. Go figure.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.