Steve Jobs, The Builder

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I knew Steve, though by no means well. I ran the Apple PR account for Paul Bergevin in Edelman’s Palo Alto office in the late 90s. Those were the days of the first iMac, a novel tool to search for files and things on the web called Sherlock (pre-loaded in OS 8.5), and the Think Different ad campaign.

For years thereafter, I’d meet people in the PR biz who said they’d worked on Apple’s business when I did; a few even claimed to have had my job. The cliche that “success has many mothers but failure is an orphan” seemed so true, and I resolved to never talk about my involvement.

It was a different planet back then: The Internet wasn’t a big deal for many people. Microsoft was the biggest and best computer company in existence, along with Dell. Y2K and the dot-com bust were future events that nobody saw coming. Apple was a teeny-weeny island of incompatible tech (we used to have problems getting our Wintel email system to interface with theirs), supported by a cadre of committed and possibly insane customers.

Paul and I were part of a small group of marketers who met with Steve regularly to brainstorm; in fact, bringing a new idea was the price of admission to the room. I remember dreading those meetings because Steve was shockingly blunt, whether with praise or disdain, and I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to weather the trepidation that filled every moment. I think the meetings were every week, though that could be my memory of how large they loomed in my professional life, and not necessarily dates on a calendar.

Anyway, one time Paul had a great idea: He was going to propose a major think-piece, perhaps even penned by Steve, on applying Apple’s ease-of-use I/O approach to other devices. It would stake out a uniquely Apple vision for user experience of car dashboards, telephones, even refrigerators, thereby announcing to the world that the company was looking far beyond computers. It was a brilliant, big idea, and I remember thinking it would be one meeting that I might actually enjoy.

Steve hated it, cutting Paul off after only a sentence or two, saying “No, no, we build cool computers.” And that was the end of it.

I eventually left the team for a variety of reasons, and as the years passed I watched Apple come out with more iMacs, then iPods, iPhones, and iPads. Steve was doing exactly what Paul thought we should tell the world, only he didn’t announce it, he just did it. All of those devices are cool computers; they just come in different shapes and do different things differently than what anybody ever expected.

It all made sense. I remember that one of the first things Steve did when he came back to Apple was to nix its appearances at trade shows (no more Comdex or CES). Those are places where companies blather on about themselves and make lots of overt and implicit promises about the future. Apple got rid of its external PR help, and never bought into the social media canon that it had to propagate “content” into conversations. When the company had something to say, it was when it had a new product ready to ship.

It just built cool computers.

In this sense, Steve Jobs was more like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford than anybody more contemporary to him. He was a builder. Focused. Inspired. Always working on making things and letting those accomplishments speak for themselves. I know that some detractors would refer to listening to Steve describe his products (the rare times that he did) as “a reality distortion field,” but it was an undeserved insult. Like the inventors who preceded him, his inventions changed reality, and some people didn’t like the way he operated. I’m not sure that I did.

But I’d bet that if he were witnessing all of the praise he’s getting now from execs and celebrities, many of whom knew him no better than I did, he’d tell them to shut up and build cool things. That’s the lesson of his life for every would-be entrepreneur, as well as every Apple customer, I think. Build things, don’t talk about them, and don’t do things because you think they’ll finagle you some cash. Build cool things.

Just by chance, we were in the Apple Store last night buying a new iPhone for our daughter, just about the time that Apple announced Steve’s death. Nobody knew, so it was an easy and fun experience, like they usually are in those stores. Perhaps in that way it was the greatest tribute to him, because it was such a small, inconsequential moment.

We bought one of the cool computers that Steve built.

(Image credit: Before the Second Revolution)

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