Challenges to Entrepreneurship - Apple's Revival - Vani Kola

COVID brings an unprecedented amount of Challenges to Entrepreneurship, economic and health crisis that none of us anticipated, and as a venture capitalist, I see up close the severe impact this has on start-ups as well as large companies alike. While the job of a start-up CEO was never easy, these times place an extraordinary burden on every CEO in managing their businesses through this crisis to success. Leaders are remembered for how they handle tough times more so than how they handle the good times.

So, I wanted to share with you some ideas from other leaders and how they managed through crises. One of the most iconic leaders of our generation is, of course, Steve Jobs. So much has been said about him and so much is there to learn from him. In 1997, I remember this so clearly, while I was living in Silicon Valley, in fact quite close to Apple headquarters. Apple was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Most people predicted Apple’s demise.

Steve Jobs was brought back as the CEO, as a last resort, to see what could be done with this company that had lost its glory. So, started the remarkable story of Apple’s recovery and I think there are lessons from it that are very applicable today for many leaders to consider. For a company, two decades ago that everybody thought was going to die, how did it all happen – this transformation? In my opinion, Steve Jobs took 3 pivotal decisions to turn around this crisis very quickly. 

What were those decisions in 1997 that he did that we can learn from today?

First, he did what he had to do to bring money into the company by setting his ego aside which is one of the major Challenges to Entrepreneurship. The rivalry between Jobs and Gates, which of course was between Microsoft and Apple, was like as they say ‘Chalk and Cheese.’ It provided media fodder. Of course, many books and documentaries have been written about it. They had such different schools of thought in how to build those two companies that the ongoing rivalry between these two companies, no one could have predicted there reaching a truce. He created a partnership with Microsoft and brought $150M into the company, setting his ego aside. This not only surprised many people, it shocked many of the Apple fans who in fact protested that this was selling out Apple’s vision and Apple’s soul.

Apple is famous for many things. In their early days and even today, they are famous for their emphasis on engineering, innovation and design. Apple was an engineering company and they took pride in it. That also led to a company culture where engineers were demigods and they had latitude to come up with new ideas and create any products that they wanted. But in the 90s, when Apple had to be transformed and a new vision of Apple had to be established, there had to be a change to this culture. For Apple to focus on pure products and not on hundreds of products, diluting their market-focus and their capacity to monopolise.

This was a big cultural shift, almost an anathema to what Steve originally promoted. Apple became a company that focused on creating a few winning products and aligning all the resources of the company behind those products.

Many times, a leader is the only one who can create massive cultural shifts in a company as it is one of the biggest Challenges to Entrepreneurship. At times, it may require the leader to go against what they believed in to begin with or what work at one point in time, if it doesn’t work today, then to have the courage of conviction to lead the organisation through change.

The third thing I remember was the power of brand advertising which is really the power of the brand itself. We associate Apple so closely with this tagline ‘Think Different’. The ‘Think Different’ campaign across every billboard in the country, closely spearheaded by Jobs, created a deep emotional connect among consumers who of course famously stood in lines to get first release of Apple products.

Every crisis re-makes leaders by the power of their conviction, by their capability to communicate and lead people to follow shareholders, employees, customers on this journey of their conviction, their passion and the vision that they see, and Jobs was a master of communication. I think the lessons we can learn from him, from the choices he made, are timeless and applicable today ever more so, as companies need to be steered by strong leaders, out of crisis into success.