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What you can learn from Steve Jobs

Appropriately for someone who had such a strong influence on technology, Steve Jobs’ death has become an Internet phenomenon, with more than 10,000 tweets per second about Jobs in the hours after his death.

There have already been thousands of tributes published about the legendary Apple leader, but it’s worth reflecting on how his life and work principles relate to small business marketing.

Let’s take a look at some of his most famous quotes:

“Things don’t have to change the world to be important.”

I know that many Apple fanboys would disagree with me, but I don’t think Apple’s products are, in and of themselves, world-changing. Apple didn’t invent the personal computer, the digital music device, or the mobile phone; they didn’t even invent the tablet computer. What Apple is good at is re-shaping existing technologies in ways that make them important to individuals. You don’t buy an iPhone because it’s changing the world; you buy an iPhone because of what it can do for you. If your product or service addresses an unmet need or wants for one customer, that’s important to them. And if it’s important to that customer, it is likely to be important to others, as well. Focus on changing things for one person, not the whole world.

“The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting. The cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.”

Although Jobs made this statement in 1997 when he took the helm of Apple for the second time, this is timely advice as the world returns to uncertain economic times. The most common reaction of companies large and small to tough times is to cut spending. What is much harder, braver, and ultimately more successful is to focus on doing things differently and doing different things, rather than fewer things, to survive and thrive.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

To me, this is the true genius that Jobs brought to Apple: the ability to develop things that we never knew we wanted, yet now can’t see how we lived without. Five years ago, a mobile phone was just a phone; today, we have collectively downloaded billions of apps to iPhones and other smartphones and are using them to entertain ourselves, shop, and conduct business. More than half of the time spent on mobile phones today is spent doing things we couldn’t even imagine 10 years ago. If you just ask your customers what they want and then try and give that to them, you may make them happy for a short while, but to build a lasting business, you need to anticipate what they might want in the future – or better yet, give them things they didn’t even know they wanted.

“They can have any colour they like, as long as it’s black.”

OK, I’m cheating, Steve Jobs didn’t say this, it was Henry Ford, encapsulating the principles of mass production, which allowed him to build cars at a price that ordinary people could afford. But that phrase also sums up one of Apple’s key strengths. After returning to Apple in the 1990s, Jobs realized that simplification was the key to success. Instead of a wide array of colors, sizes, and speeds, you can just buy an iMac, MacBook, or MacBook Pro, in white or silver; the iPhone comes in a handful of storage options, in white or black, while the iPad offers even simpler choices. I know, I know, this is the era of mass customization, but particularly for small businesses, keeping things simple can make it easier to make a decision to buy.

“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”

This is particularly applicable to those of us in small businesses. You have to have a bit of a pirate in you to leave the security of a large organization and strike out on your own. And you won’t succeed as a small business if you simply provide goods or services that are exactly like what the big boys are offering. You need to fly your own flag and offer your own special flavor or there’s no point doing it.

“I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”

Don’t get stuck in a rut, even if it’s a comfortable one. Be open to continually learning and trying to anticipate what your customers will need or want in the future. Let’s face it, that’s one of the main reasons why you’re in business for yourself!

You probably won’t build a company worth $350 billion (and I hope you don’t start wearing black skivvies in public), but the principles that drove Steve Jobs can also be successfully applied to your small business.

Dr. Ray Welling is Director of Digital Strategy & Communications for healthcare communications consultancy Vivacity Health. He also manages a small digital content agency and strategic consultancy and lectures in marketing at Macquarie University.

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