Imagine going to work for Steve Jobs as a recent college graduate. That's what happened to Mark Tacchi, who dropped out of graduate school in 1993 to take a job at NeXT, the computer company Jobs founded after being forced out of Apple.
Getting the job was a dream come true, says Tacchi, who now heads Vendini, an arts ticketing provider that handled more than $300 million in ticket sales last year. "When I was 15, I bought my first Apple computer and thought, 'One day I want to work for Steve Jobs,'" he recalls. Growing up in Winnipeg, he didn't know where Silicon Valley was, "but I wanted to be there!"
In time, Apple acquired NeXT in a deal that put Jobs back at Apple's helm. Tacchi spent a total of four years at NeXT and Apple, and he learned a lot about how to run a business (and how not to). Here are some of his takeaways:
1. Make your products light-switch simple.
Early on, Tacchi was invited to work on a product demo for a new e-commerce system, which he now describes as "like a very simple Amazon store." At the time, it was cutting-edge technology.
"We were told, 'Come up with something and we'll see if Steve likes it,'" Tacchi says. If so, Jobs might use the demo in an upcoming keynote. Tacchi and a colleague worked hard on the user interface, making it as easy and intuitive as they could.
Five minutes before their presentation, Tacchi's supervisor stopped by. "He closed the door, sat down, and, looking serious, said, 'I just want you to understand that, whatever Steve says, you shouldn't take it personally.'"
A now-terrified Tacchi joined his friend in the demo room moments later. "It was a big, blacked-out conference room, right out of the movies, with glowing monitors all around the room with all the demos," he recalls. "So Steve Jobs comes in and--wow, this is the guy!"
Jobs went systematically from one workstation to the next, trying out the demos. At the first workstation, he immediately said, "No, I can't use this one." At the second, he said, "Maybe I can use this if someone can fix the graphical interface." Now it was Tacchi's turn.
Because the demo was designed to be user friendly, Tacchi and his friend had provided no instructions. They figured Jobs could sit down and immediately figure it out. And that's just what happened. "He's looking at it, clicking around, and then he sits back and says, 'OK, this I can use.'" Tacchi and his friend performed a silent high-five from opposite sides of the room.
Tacchi's been committed ever since to "light-switch simple" design for all his products. "One of my biggest rules is, if it needs an instruction manual it's probably designed wrong," he says.
2. Offer a solution, not a product.
"Steve loved making sexy technologies that solved problems," Tacchi says. "At NeXT, we built solutions for the Fortune 100. At Vendini, we built our company the same way. We're not a ticketing company; we've created a complete solution for festivals and concerts, everything to help these companies innovate and succeed."
Creating a complete solution is the way to build for the long term, Tacchi says. It's the difference between creating a product and creating a successful company.
3. Sweat the small stuff.
Jobs's legendary attention to detail was well in evidence at NeXT where, Tacchi reports, the men's room dcor was done in the same shades of black, white, and gray originally available on the company's products.
That same attention was applied to product design. "Colors and placement of buttons, size of tags, choice of wording--there were all these thoughtful tiny choices," Tacchi says.
Not all the choices worked out well. Jobs commissioned a ferociously expensive glass staircase for the NeXT offices, and his insistence on a cube-shaped magnesium case for the original NeXT computer may have priced the device out of the educational market. "It's not going to work 100 percent of the time," Tacchi concedes.
Today, though, those same transparent "floating" staircases draw crowds to Apple stores. And meticulous attention to design and user experience has helped Apple consistently command higher prices than its competitors. "All those little decisions add up to become important," Tacchi says.
4. Always hire the best.
Tacchi was surprised at how much of a process interviewing job candidates was at NeXT. Once he started working there, though, he understood. "I quickly learned that I was surrounded by some of the best talent in the world," he says. "So I learned to hire as well."
He's taken the approach with him to Vendini. "Don't just ask casual questions; make sure everyone going into the interview has a specific area to ask about," he advises.
It's worth taking a lot of time over hires, he says. "You have to weed out the candidates who aren't A players. Your A talent doesn't want to work with B talent. And your B talent will never hire A talent."
5. Encourage your people to blossom, even if it doesn't benefit you.
Coders love to code, so one of Tacchi's colleagues took a Saturday morning to solve a software problem another engineer had posted to an online bulletin board. The only drawback was that that solution went to repair a product sold by a NeXT competitor.
The engineer who'd asked for help was so grateful he sent one of his company's workstations as a thank-you, at the time quite a valuable gift. Tacchi's friend was delighted--until Jobs learned about it. He was outraged that his employee had helped a competitor and insisted the gift be returned.
So Tacchi was quite worried when he won a competition to create a gaming framework for Java, which was new at the time. He told no one that he would be honored onstage, kept the Sun workstations he won in his apartment, and hid the large--and signed--Java logo that arrived for him at the office soon thereafter.
It was a shame, he says--he would have much preferred to share his triumph with his colleagues. So now he encourages employees to take up outside interests and helps finance outside education.
6. Yes, you can start a company.
Working for Steve Jobs made it seem not so far-fetched to become an entrepreneur himself. And so about six months after Apple bought NeXT, with the combined company in financial trouble, Tacchi decided to strike out on his own. His first company, Hipbone, provided CRM collaboration tools and was acquired by Kana Software in 2004. Vendini is his second entrepreneurial venture.
Daring to go out on his own was probably the biggest lesson he took from his time at NeXT and Apple, he muses. "Those were life-changing years for me."