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Steve Jobs’ real secret? He was Customer Number 1

“Steve Jobs is above all an Apple customer. He and Steve Wozniak built devices that both of them wanted to use themselves. Wozniak brought exceptional engineering chops. Even more important, Jobs (who can’t program) brought the perspective of a passionate and non-technical customer into the design, the look and feel, and the excitement of Apple products. What made and still makes Apple products great — and what other tech firms can’t seem to grasp — is that Jobs and Wozniak didn’t apply their talents to make money or demonstrate engineering prowess. They applied their talents, fiercely, in the service of creating something that would excite them as customers — which they could do because they were passionate customers, as are the employees of the organization they built.”

BILL LEE, blogs.hbr.org (30 August 2011)

Everyone and their uncle is writing about Steve Jobs since he stepped down from his role as Apple’s CEO recently. Suddenly everyone has an opinion on Apple’s meteoric recent success – including all those who ridiculed Jobs and his company not so long ago. Mr Jobs will no doubt become the most analyzed and studied CEO in history.

Needless to say, much of this analysis is going to be long on rhetoric and short on genuine insight. Steve Jobs is Steve Jobs, and none of us is going to become him. But as we sift through the history of this man and his astonishingly successful company, we do find some genuine nuggets of wisdom that stop and make us think.

Bill Lee unearthed one recently, in the HBR blog site. It is captured in the excerpt shown. Bill Lee is pointing out something that was “hidden in plain sight” all along: the fact that Steve Jobs was Apple’s most passionate customer, not just its chief executive.

So obvious, isn’t it? Study all those videos of Jobs launching his iconic products: the various iMacs, iPods, iPhones and iPads of recent times. One thing stands out: this man loves his products as a consumer, not just as a producer. He loves handling them, feeling them, working with them. He is Customer Numero Uno.

That simple fact explains so much: why they are so sleek, artistic, easy to use and beautifully designed. As a business leader you can’t pull that off as a concept – the final product has to matter in YOUR life as much as it does in the lives of your customers. Steve Jobs’ great achievement was to think like a customer. He intuitively understood what consumers would want, and what type of simplicity would blow them away.

Bill Lee tells us of a time when an Apple team had been tasked with developing DVD-burning software. “When Jobs walked into the meeting, he didn’t so much as look at any of the plans. He picked up a marker, went to a whiteboard and drew a rectangle, representing the application. He then told them what he wanted the new application to do. The user would drag the video into the window, a button would appear that said “burn,” and the user would click it. “That’s it, that’s what we’re going to make,” he said.”

Now that is called working from the customer backwards. And it helps greatly when your top customer also happens to be your CEO.

How many times is that true? Most CEOs are professional managers who may NEVER consume their own product. The only passion they feel for it is in analyzing its sales and contribution to bottom line. Often, CEOs are so detached from their products that their target customer is a mysterious figure to them, even viewed with derision.

Look around you. You may discover that the best CEOs are often the ones most connected with their products. They are the ones who can turn mere baubles and mundane offerings into objects of beauty and desire.

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