On September 16, 1997, the people of Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia looked up and saw a lunar eclipse. But in Cupertino, California, we were witnessing our own cosmic event: Steve Jobs was rejoining Apple as interim CEO, twelve years to the day after he pushed Eject following a pissing match with then-CEO John Sculley.
I was roughly midway through my twenty-two-year Apple tenure, and the prodigal son’s return nearly came too late. By September of 1997, Apple was about two weeks from bankruptcy. A parade of empty-suit CEOs had led us to the edge of a cliff, our lineup of twenty-odd redundant, vanilla products draped around our neck and ready to drag us down to a Wile E. Coyote-esque BOOM.
Worst of all, we were boring. If you’d written a book about Apple back then, it would’ve been called Fifty Shades of Beige. Then Steve walked back into our Silicon Valley gin joint and everything changed. We all knew something extraordinary was about to happen.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that time as we play our national game of hide-and-seek with the novel coronavirus. I’ve been thinking about what will happen when business finally opens back up—when workers in tech, finance, real estate, apparel, and a hundred other sectors return to an economy scarred and scurvied by shutdowns and mortal fear.
Will executives in gutted industries try to go back to business as usual? How will young companies regain traction in a hellscape of double-digit unemployment, particularly with COVID-19’s hood and scythe lurking around every corner? Will businesses now comfy working at a distance drag everyone back to the office? With U.S. GDP predicted to decline as much as forty-two percent in Q2 of 2020—a plunge that brings to mind a Chinese satellite burning up during reentry—who’s going to be left to buy or produce anything?
For a solution, I looked back to what happened after Jobs resumed his mantle. Steve had changed during his time away, launching NeXT and becoming an early investor in Pixar. Before the departure, he’d been as much an abrasive brat-prince as an innovator. But now he had a strategy and a vision. He announced we were scrapping our entire line and whittling it down to four products: a consumer and business desktop PC, and a consumer and business notebook. Customers who liked the Newton or StyleWriter or Performa were SOL.
The move was disorienting…and exhilarating. With Steve at the helm, the musicians and artists who had started Apple once again had room to break stuff and recapture our creative mojo. With his mandate to focus on the customer and the room to question everything, Apple laid the foundation for its renaissance: the candy-colored iMac, the iBook, FireWire, and in 2001, the product that would anchor what became the iOS ecosystem, the iPod.
This same idea holds the key to our post-pandemic business recovery. To put it simply:
Throw everything over the side.
Steve knew that holding onto what doesn’t work anymore is like holding onto sandbags when your hot air balloon is sinking fast. It’s suicidal. That’s why I call this the “aeronaut principle.” We’re in an era of wrenching change, and while some corners of business will go back to whatever passed for normal, many will reboot or perish. For a white-hot year, after a vaccine is distributed and commerce revs back up, disruptive ideas won’t just be welcomed, they’ll be expected. Demanded. Worshipped. Daring coders, rebellious designers, and iconoclast entrepreneurs will be essential workers.
That’s when smart companies with nothing to lose will throw out bathwater and baby and go the Apple path, following the three parts of the aeronaut principle:
- ABR—Always Be Reinventing. Know why The Beatles, David Bowie, Prince, and Stevie Wonder are the greatest musical artists of the last fifty years? Because with every record, they reinvented everything. They never recycled musical ideas for the sake of keeping their fans happy. They broke new ground because that’s what lit them up. Don’t get careful because you’re afraid to make your customers angry. Be bold and aggressive, even arrogant. Do work that sets you and your people on fire. Anything less is pandering.
- Don’t give customers what they want; tell them what they need. Under Steve’s leadership, Apple abandoned the path of competitors like IBM and Dell. While they were trying to fulfill customer demand, we were out to change what people could do with technology. No focus groups. No market research. Steve knew that if we designed experiences that felt intuitive and even magical, it didn’t matter if customers wanted them. We could make them need
- Question what your business really is. Amazon doesn’t sell books and air purifiers and hand sanitizer. It sells instant gratification. Do you know what you sell? The trillion-dollar Apple of today began with Steve’s revelation that we weren’t in the business of selling computers, MP3 players or phones. We were selling tools that our customers could use to create a lifestyle. Once we saw Apple through that lens, everything changed. After the plague passes, will people be looking to you for something different, something that will enchant or inspire?
If you do follow the aeronaut principle, one word of advice: Make a clean break with your old products, services, or business model. No backsliding. No breakup sex. Be swift and brutal and don’t look back. That’s how Steve did it, and it’s worked pretty well, don’t you think?