With some ingenious strategy, Steve Jobs and his team took about 15 years to transform Apple into the most valuable company in the world.

But while we are all witness to the end result, there was a lot of research and heavy thinking that went into developing that strategy. What if we could get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Apple visionary at work?

We can.

The following video is the first in a series that Jobs targeted at NeXT's internal marketing and sales staff. If you're not familiar with NeXT, this is the company that Jobs went on to found after he initially left Apple in 1985. Although NeXT only shipped about 50,000 units and eventually dropped out of the hardware business, the company profoundly influenced the current generation of technology. In fact, NeXT software was used as the foundation for what we now know as OS X, iOS, watchOS, and the App Store.


Filmed at the NeXT headquarters in Redwood City, California, in 1991, Jobs focuses on marketing strategy--but along the way, he stresses some fundamentals that every business owner would do well to heed. (If you find this interesting, you might want to check out another behind-the-scenes post: How Steve Jobs Conducted His Legendary Meetings.)

The Context

In 1991, NeXT was focused on producing high-powered computer workstations. But figuring out the company's target customer was a challenge. Was NeXT competing with Sun Microsystems, which focused on the workstation marketplace? Or did NeXT want to compete with Apple and PC manufacturers for a piece of that enormous market? It took the company some soul-searching to figure it out.

As it turns out, the marketing team had a revelation just a few months previous. Jobs shares the profound insight:

There wasn't really just one workstation marketplace, but two.

The traditional half encompassed scientists and engineers. But there was a new market for workstations emerging that Jobs dubs "the professional half." These people included those working in the medical, legal, and higher-education professions, the high-end publishing industry, and others--namely, anyone who was not a scientist or engineer that desired the superior power of a workstation. Jobs and his team determined that they would focus on this market of professionals, with Sun Microsystems being their only real competitor.

Truth be told, NeXT's strategy didn't work so well ... at the time.

In reality, Jobs and his team were simply ahead of the game. Think about the primary users of high-powered iMacs and MacBook Pros today: the creatives, the writers and bloggers, the small-business owners. True, the market has heavily evolved in the past 14 years. Flexible working and a changing industrial landscape have blurred the lines between consumer and professional. But over that time, Jobs and his team built a strong and loyal following that gave Apple the reputation for best in class.

Lessons for You and Your Business

So what can you learn from all of this? After analyzing the video, I picked out the following four lessons.

1. You need a combination of market research, proven experience, and great vision.

Notice how Jobs defends his strategy: "The market research data that we have and also our gut feelings from many, many years in the industry say that this marketplace ... is gonna grow ... "

Takeaway: Everyone is data driven nowadays, and that's good. Good data can lead to good decisions. But you also need experience and vision--the ability to identify current trends and predict future shifts. If you lack that as a business owner, hire someone with a proven track record.

Then do everything you can to keep that person around.

2. Simplify.

Even 14 years ago, there was a whole lot of data to sort through. It took Jobs and his team months of analysis before they even figured out who their primary customer and competitor were. How did they do it?

By boiling everything down to the most important questions and answers.

You'll notice Jobs doing this repeatedly throughout his presentation. He structures it using just three questions, which he introduces within the first 30 seconds.  As he addresses specific problems, he repeatedly focuses on the top three answers.

Takeaway: Simple, structured thinking leads to clear solutions--that can be tested as soon as possible.

When you or your team analyze data, start by asking all questions and naming all problems. But then realize, you can't focus on all the problems. Take two or three of the most important questions, and split up your team to concentrate on solving only one at a time. Initially, they should brainstorm as many answers to that one question as possible. But in the end, they should again reduce.

Choose only the top one or two solutions, and then work on implementing one at a time. Give the test a fair chance. But if it fails, move on to the next one.

3. Turn your customer needs and desires into your USP.

After outlining what drives customers to the category of high-powered yet user-friendly computing, Jobs goes on to identify NeXT's key competitive strengths against Sun, namely: the customer need for a specific custom app, the high quality of productivity apps offered, and a superior capability to communicate and network.

As Jobs puts it:

"What are our key competitive strengths against Sun? It turns out that they are exactly the three things that are driving people into the category in the first place!"

Takeaway: It all starts with asking why. Why do people want this product or service? Not necessarily your specific offering, but the product or service in general.

Once you identify those needs and desires, focus your resources on making your USP fit them better than anyone else's.

4. Never stop learning.

Jobs concludes his presentation with the following words:

"I hope this gives you a feel for what we've learned in the last 90 to 120 days. I have no doubt that we will continue to learn more and more together at an ever accelerating rate as we get more and more customers."

Takeaway: Albert Einstein reportedly said, "Once you stop learning, you start dying."

The same could be said for your company. Just when you think you've got things figured out, they've already changed. Continue asking tough questions and looking for answers.

Make sure to set the example, and you'll create a culture in which others are motivated to do the same.

Published on: Nov 4, 2015
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