Friday, October 25, 2013

How smart guys pitched their ideas to Steve Jobs, the prickly perfectionist

Steve Jobs looked at the world in binary mode. Either your idea was shitty or it was fantastic – nothing in between. That made the life difficult for people presenting ideas to him. How did they manage it? What tactics did the smart folks employ to get their ideas accepted? Let’s see in this article. Your boss or reviewer may not be as “binary” as Jobs, but the techniques may still come handy.

Show it privately: This is how Jonathan Ive, the key designer behind iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad and Steve’s close friend dealt with the situation. Ive and his team were working on multi-touch technology for the MacBook Pro in their spare time. He knew that it could be a game-changer technology. Ive says, “Because Steve is so quick to give an opinion, I don’t show him stuff in front of other people,” Ive recalled. “He might say, ‘This is shit,’ and snuff the idea. I feel that ideas are very fragile, so you have to be tender when they are in development.” Ive demoed the multi-touch idea in a one-on-one meeting. Fortunately, Jobs liked it and said, “This is the future.”

Create a Fine-tune-It-Yourself kit: Chris Espinosa was a Berkeley drop-out and part of Mac development team. On his own he decided to design a calculator for Mac. When he showed the first demo to Jobs, he said, “Well, it’s a start, but basically, it stinks.” Jobs felt that the background color is too dark, buttons are too big etc. Espinosa started to refine the design based on Jobs’ feedback. But with every iteration came more criticism. After a number of iterations, Espinosa got fed up and created a brilliant solution - “The Steve Jobs Roll Your Own Calculator Construction Set”. It allowed Jobs to tweak and personalize the look-and-feel. Jobs spent ten minutes and fine-tuned it to his taste. This design shipped on the Mac and remained the standard for fifteen years.

Quietly disregard the comment and go ahead: During the Mac development, the team desperately needed a 5 ¼ inch hard drive. The one being developed in the Apple corporate office was buggy.  Belleville, head of Mac Engineering team, suggested two options to Jobs. One, sourcing it from Sony,  and two, sourcing a Sony-clone from Alps Electronics, a smaller Japanese supplier. Jobs and Belleville flew to Japan and saw both the products. Jobs thought Alps was great and Sony was shitty. Belleville was appalled as he felt that Alps could not deliver it within the required timeframe. Anyway, Jobs ordered Belleville to cease all work with Sony.

Belleville gave a go ahead to both the companies. One engineer from Sony, Hidetoshi Komoto, would work clandestinely at Mac engineering team. They would hide him whenever Jobs visited. Eventually, Alps folks admitted that they would need eighteen more months for production to start. At that point, Belleville told Jobs that he might have an alternative to the Alps drive ready soon. With a big grin on his face, Jobs said, “You son of a bitch!”

Source: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. Jonathan Ives story is on page 468, Espinnosa story is on page 132, Belleville story is on page 145-147. Photo source:


  1. One of the risk I have seen in showing things privately is people steal your idea and you don't get the credit ,any ideas what can we do with respect to that

    1. Good point Utkarsh. If the person you are presenting your idea is more like Steve Jobs, then there is very little you can do. The Reality Distortion is so powerful that your voice is practically inaudible. Even a guy as talented as Jonathan Ive felted not given enough credit for his ideas. Imagine the situation for folks a few ranks below. Having said that here are a couple of things I can think of: (1) Show the idea to a few people before you show it to the "boss". (2) Write an internal documentation / video perhaps an e-mail to show that you indeed had the germ of the idea.

      Anything else?

  2. oh no, that over-rates SOB StevejOBs again..

    1. I agree. Steve Jobs is over-rated. He wanted to project himself as a super-hero and he succeeded in that. The article also tries to bring out how Jobs' intuition was fallible (disk drive story) and there were smart guys like Ive, Espinosa and Belleville who were also contributing to the success of Apple.

  3. Adding a comment from a friend and well-wisher Shashank Nabar, who has been in the creative field for more than two decades:

    Interesting! This is an eye-opener for all in the creative field Vinay! Whenever I interact with creative guys in our small organisation, I try my best not to make conclusive remarks. Such a lot of seemingly foolish ideas in mar com can be turned into good ideas if brainstorming goes right :) And yes… we come across clients who end up taking ad hoc decisions on creative ideas which affect their bottomline. And they never realise it! While some are smart enough to ask for presentations & steal ideas from the presentation.

    How much impact can a prejudiced technocrat have while rejecting an idea is fearful to imagine.