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Steve Jobs Was Overrated as a CEO

Former Apple CEO John Sculley built Apple into a powerhouse and laid the groundwork for the iPod.
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This isn't a review of the Steve Jobs bio pic movie because 1) I don't do movie reviews and 2) I haven't seen it anyway.  However, if the reviews are accurate, the movie depicts Jobs was a towering figure who single-handedly made Apple successful.

I beg to differ. In my view, former Apple CEO John Sculley is at least as responsible for Apple's success as Steve Jobs.

The following graphic Apple's revenue and profit before the glory years when the iPod really took off.  For clarity, I've assigned the two men's entrance and exits to the closest fiscal year.

 

Sources: SEC and New York Times

As you can see, while Sculley was at the helm, Apple experienced an "insanely great" period of growth and in his final year with the company racked up higher revenue and profit than the first seven years after Jobs's return.

Meanwhile, Jobs was pursuing the computing strategy that he presumably would have followed had he remained at Apple: the NeXT computer which was such a dismal failure that the current wikipedia entry consists of only three paragraphs.

In fact, Jobs's return to Apple the result of Apple purchasing NeXT and the NeXT operating system.  However, it's clear from Apple's subsequent revenue and profits that neither Jobs nor NeXT were capable of reversing the company's fortunes.

Consider this: when Sculley left Apple, the Macintosh was the best-selling PC brand, surpassing IBM.  By contrast, after five years under Jobs's renewed leadership, the Macintosh had declined into a backwater platform.

It wasn't until the iPod/iTune combination took off in 2004 (FY2005) that Apple finally had a better year than the Sculley years.

Therein lies the reason that Sculley is as important to Apple's current status as Jobs. It was Sculley who pioneered the Newton, the device that eventually led to Apple's big winners: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Sculley's vision was that everybody would have a "personal digital assistant" (a term he coined) that would act as a "knowledge navigator" (another term he coined).  In other words, Sculley predicted and prototyped today's mobile computing environment.

Significantly, one of Jobs's first decisions when he retook the helm was to cancel the Newton.  It wasn't until Jobs embraced Sculley's vision, with the iPod, that Apple began its meteoric rise.

There's no question that Jobs shepherded Sculley's vision into reality with a series of winning product releases.  However, it's unclear whether that would have been possible if Apple had not already possessed "DNA" from the Newton experience.

Furthermore, it could be argued that Jobs's pursuit of the failed NeXT strategy, rather than building on the Newton, may have delayed Apple's success.  Would Android even exist as a competitor had the iPod been introduced two years earlier?

Despite Hollywood's take, from a business perspective, John Sculley was at least as successful as Apple CEO as Jobs and possibly more successful, if the standard for greatness is laying the groundwork for the future.

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IMAGE: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Last updated: Aug 19, 2013

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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