In 1981, Inc. put Apple founder Steve Jobs on its cover next to this headline: "This man has changed business forever."
The accomplishments of Jobs, who passed away last night, have been well-cataloged. He popularized the personal computer, created Pixar, revived an ailing Apple, revolutionized the way people consume music, bequeathed the Jesus Phone, and invented the tablet computer. But there's another aspect of his career that is getting less attention, and that may prove to be even more significant than any of his gadgets: Jobs created a world where it was okay to be Steve Jobs.
We take the idea of the hero-entrepreneur, personified by someone like Mark Zuckerberg, for granted these days. But before Jobs, entrepreneurship as a career path was entirely suspect. Entrepreneurs were not worthy of our admiration; they were hucksters, social deviants, or even criminals.
Jobs was all of these things—he dropped out of college, dropped acid, and earned a reputation as a petutalant, out-of-touch, micromanager—and he somehow managed the build the most valuable company in the world. His success proved that strong-willed, visionary entrepreneurs could succeed, and that they had something to teach us. Zuckerberg, in his remembrance of Jobs, calls the Apple founder a "mentor," and it's hard to imagine that he would ever have been able to maintain control of Facebook if Jobs hadn't shown how effective a hard-headed founder can be.
There's another way that Jobs helped entrepreneurs. His products—beginning with the early Apple PCs—brought computers, once the exclusive domain of corporate America, to small companies. Over the past three decades, the price of starting a company—any company—has fallen dramatically thanks to the widespread availability of cheap PCs and free software. There are now hundreds of start-ups coming out of accelerators like TechStars and Y Combinator, which have proven that $20,000 is all you need to seed a billion-dollar idea.
It's fitting that Jobs's most recent products, the iPhone and iPad, have done so much for the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The App Store has already paid out some $3 billion to developers, allowing indepedent entrepreneurs nearly instant access to tens of millions of customers. Not all of those entrepreneurs will go on to create big, world changing companies, but its a fair bet that some will. And that could be Steve Jobs's greatest legacy.
Last updated: Oct 6, 2011
Senior contributing writer MAX CHAFKIN has profiled companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Twitter,
Threadless, and Tesla for the magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @chafkin