How That Vicious Inner Critic Can Be Your Closest Ally

TMT1There’s something about optimism. Nothing in business is quite as powerful in motivating people to believe in a mission as a leader who undoubtedly believes. The energy that radiates from a passionate entrepreneur is engaging, uplifting, and inspiring. When we hear someone tell us he or she is following their muse, boldly pursuing a personal dream, we want to root for them. We want to become a part of it. We want to hitch our cart to their wagon. We want to step out of the ordinary and get onboard the outrageous.

A leader who won’t be deterred can bring purpose to a business enterprise.

A leader who rises above petty criticism and backstabbing naysayers can turn a hundred dollars into a hundred million dollars.

A leader who is “all-in” and won’t be dissuaded from a cohesive, organic vision can literally change the world.

Over and over we hear the speechifying that tells us never to give up, that resilience is all that matters, that we should forget the critics and ignore the naysayers.

Already doing that? Great. But there’s a catch.

Walt Disney was told he was no good as an illustrator, that his characters would never be popular. Steve Jobs got fired from his own company for being difficult, and refusing to compromise his ambitions. They were never dissuaded. They were resilient and persevered. They could not have cared less what their critics were saying.

Walt and Steve are held up as classic examples of rejecting rejection. They maintained an uncompromised vision and carved their place in history because of it. Detractors who called out “their folly” could do them no sustained harm. Walt and Steve evidenced a form of courage that set a new high water mark for leading teams beyond the fog to unbridled innovation. They remain heroes to those who aspire to transcend the ordinary.

So what’s the catch? You want to be That Leader, right? Or maybe you just want to sign on with That Leader? What’s the missing element that is most likely to take you down?

Is it that the odds against a startup succeeding are enormous?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs know this long before they quit their day jobs. Many are wacky, but few are stupid.

Is it that capital is very hard to raise, especially for a first time entrepreneur?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs discover this lesson the first time mom or dad says, “What!? Are you kidding me? You’re not a CEO… you can barely manage to get matching socks on your feet!” They secretly know that mom and dad are just negotiating their share of the deal for the seed round.

Is it that it’s nearly impossible to get super-talented people to work for deferred or limited pay for the long runway until a business is cash flow positive?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs are confident that if they articulate an exciting enough plan, the right people will get with the program no matter what, and the ones who said no just saved the entrepreneur the pain of having to fire them later for their mediocrity.

Then what is it? What is the Achilles Heel of the resilient? What is the repelling force that stands counter to the success of leaders brave enough to shake off a world that tells them No No No when all they hear in their heads is Yes Yes Yes?

Presume for a moment this entrepreneur is You. Get your highlighter ready. You’ll want to make note of this for the rest of your career.

The problem might be YOU.

Don’t highlight that. I haven’t gotten to the important part yet. The part you need to highlight is this:

If you’re not going to listen to the critics who will tell you every reason in the world why you are going to fail—and believe you absolutely must tune them out in order to be a renowned, world-class leader—you are going to have to be the hardest critic in the world on yourself.

Yes, in order to earn the privilege of ducking all the pessimists trying to steer you away from your dream, you must beat yourself up in ways they can’t even imagine. There is no luxury in resilience. There is only a level of self-critique so necessary that the pain it will cause you as a lone wolf makes child’s play of the third-party negativity you will never hear. What you hear in your head must be far more thundering—and far more impactful.

The real reason most startup leaders fail

It’s not because of a lack of devotion, or a lack of passion, or even because of a lack of talent.

They fail because of a lack of self-critique.

Does this apply to you? Have you actually established yourself as your own toughest critic? I don’t mean a little tough. I mean vicious, brutal, send yourself into a tailspin tough. Sorry to break the news, but that’s why Walt and Steve were often perceived as miserable. They were always very, very tough on themselves, an order of magnitude more thrashing than what any bleacher critic was or even could have been.

I have had the privilege to lead a handful of creative companies and I have had the privilege to be a published author. In all cases I was told innumerable times why I would not be successful. I didn’t hear a word of it. I didn’t need to hear a word of it. In all cases I was already way ahead of the peanut gallery, working and reworking the scenarios of why I wouldn’t be successful.

I study product features like I study word choices. I might tell you that no one on the market has anything like this, but before you’ll hear me utter those words, I have done the homework to assure myself this is worth defending. No one else can do that as stridently as I can. I say “no” to a sentence a hundred times before I let you see it. I edit it, erase it, rewrite it, rework it, change it, question it, then pick it apart word by word until I have exhausted all its failures. Same with a product. Same with a service.

I can only ignore the amateur naysayers because I am my own best professional naysayer.

Let’s take it deeper, to a place you may not want to go. Here’s another reason why startup leaders fail: they doggedly champion a product that is no good. It’s not because the naysayers are right. It’s because the startup leader doesn’t embrace the radical discipline to relentlessly question themselves and, by extension, their product.

If running out of time and money don’t apply as explanations, most entrepreneurs fail for a very simple reason: their idea was not good enough to create a category defining product or service. Too often we dupe ourselves into believing the ordinary is extraordinary. We fall in love with an idea because we gave birth to it, and rather than beating that idea into something exceptional—or dumping it, learning from it, and finding the fortitude to reinvent it into something else—we tell ourselves we will not be dissuaded and we go to market with mediocrity. That’s when we get walloped.

Once again, the tough love, get out the highlighter:

The only way you can defy the odds and ignore the critics is if you have a massive built-in crap filter. If you don’t want someone else to tell you your product is crap, you better be willing to tell yourself it’s crap or you’re going to blow a lot of time and money on nothing.

Artists and inventors have a crap filter no matter how successful they are. Walt did. So did Steve. Walt was told that audiences would never want to see a feature-length animated motion picture. He didn’t hear it, because Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way to make it something people would never want to see.

Steve was told there would never be a market for something as intimidating as home computing. He didn’t hear it, because the Apple II was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way that it would intimidate people.

Both of these visionaries agonized over perfection and were never satisfied. When they were starting out they were never satisfied. When they were at the bottom they were never satisfied. When they were at the top of their game they were never satisfied. The critics failed to resonate with them because they were lightweights in comparison to their own pounding criticism.

Are you embracing this burden of innovation?

Why do I need you to hear this? Why is this so desperately important to everyone who wants to make a difference and change the world? Because too many hopeful leaders are embracing the rhetoric of “going their own way” without embracing this burden of innovation. Every single day someone shows me a derivative app and begs me to believe in them. It’s a minimum viable product, they tell me, they will build on it and make it great later.

Right, after customers have yawned.

You really think they’ll give you another chance? So yours is 12% faster than your competition? So what? So yours addresses a tiny niche with a quirky set of differentiating features that matter mostly to you for pitching on demo day… So what? Get your eyes off the IPO listings and back on the shelf where the war for customers is lost or won. Don’t be Happy. Be Grumpy.

Incrementality is toxic. Don’t tell me how all your competitors have slightly weaker products than what you’re proposing. Convince yourself you can blow my mind with something that leapfrogs the entire market if not in one product cycle then over a generation. If you don’t want me to tell you that your app is crap then be sure you’ve asked yourself a hundred times before you ignore me. If you don’t know that your app is crap because you aren’t being honest with yourself then you haven’t earned the right to ignore the naysayers.

That’s the secret sauce—knowing when you are ready to play and when the cards you hold are not worth playing. Be that critic and you’ll never need another. When you stand up onstage and tell your story of success, it will undoubtedly be preceded by the chapters of failure that led you to your day in the sun. I want to come to that speech and applaud. I want to see you do it again and again. I want to see you tell the naysayers to jump off a peer.

Are you ready to take on the responsibility of being your own toughest critic? Wield your inner critic in such a way that it allows you to do the best work of your life. Then yeah, tell us all to bugger off and let’s get to work changing the world.

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This article originally appeared on The Modern Team.

Photo Image: Courtesy of Exclusive Collections Gallery (Fabio Napoleoni)

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Act Two Begins When You Say So

F Scott Fitzgerald“There are no second acts in American lives.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon, 1941

“I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, My Lost City, 1932

Like many everyday admirers of American literature, I grew up only hearing the first use of Fitzgerald’s famous quote, which in fact was published posthumously. And like many people who misinterpreted that quote due to a lack of context, I grew up confused, conflicted, and even angry every time I read it. Fitzgerald the social observer worried about the American Dream, but he also celebrated idealism and courage. Would he want to be remembered for an inaccurate observation that is not only untrue but damaging? I doubt it.

Without diving into a diatribe on American literature, let’s just lift from the earlier interpretation of Fitzgerald’s quote and bury the latter forever. To the complete contrary, I assert with full confidence that it is entirely the DNA of American lives to reignite with second acts—in many cases, multiple second acts. In fact you can have as many acts as you want. Your life’s work can be singular, dual, multifaceted, multithreaded, a sine curve of milestones, or a pastiche of overlapping landmarks. If anyone tells you otherwise, run away as far as you can as quickly as you can and clear your mind of the naysayer’s rub.

Our economy is a place that celebrates reinvention. Our democracy is a place where resilience triumphs over cynicism. I believe these things not because I am a Pollyanna motivator (quite the opposite if you know me), but because I see these traits in winners who repeatedly defy the odds. Entrepreneurs, respected leaders, creative professionals who challenge the status quo—they all have to be good at what they do, but they all get knocked down for believing that change has to happen. They seldom bring change to the world on their first try, and when they win, they seldom win once. Why is that? Because before Act One is over, Act Two is in the works, and probably Act Three.

There is only one thing that can prevent an Act Two curtain from rising: Your own decision that a failure is too much to bear. The Information Age has turned that notion wholeheartedly on its head. As long as there is learning extracted from failure, failure is a pit stop, not an endpoint. As long as risk is sufficiently mitigated to bypass a cataclysmic wipeout of resources, you are not failing if you are learning. You are on a path to where you need to go. You are on your way to Act Two.

Read Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. We all know Jobs founded Apple. Then he got kicked out of his own company for being an uncontrollable rebel, the very thing that put Apple on the map. Jobs gets fired around p.206 in Chapter 17. He is personally devastated, emotionally crushed. That’s when his Act Two begins. The book ends on p.571 in Chapter 42. Through it all, Jobs’s Act Two is fueled by a spirit of resilience and a commitment to personal reinvention. He lives an arc that resonates.

Read Neil Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. Disney Bros. loses control of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit around p.109 in Chapter 3. Mickey Mouse is born in Chapter 4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—which simultaneously almost crushed Disney’s financial interests and then put the Disney name into American lore forever—arrives in Chapter 6. Disneyland doesn’t even make an appearance until Chapter 10. The book continues until Chapter 11 is finally exhausted on p.633. If you’re looking to count second acts, start early.

Reinvention does not only apply to the famous. When I personally decided to return to writing after a twenty-five year hiatus, a lot of people made snide remarks, both to my face and behind my back. I had enjoyed a respected career in management at the intersection of entertainment and technology, but I never wanted to consider that my whole story. Starting over and writing a novel with a half-century under my belt seemed absurd to almost everyone around me. I would be competing with established authors who had amassed a lifetime of credits. I would be doing it for a fraction of the income I earned previously. There was absolutely no way to predict critical or commercial success of any kind. Critics can be harsh, public evaluation even more ominous. It was a challenge filled with possibility, a path to sharing ideas with authenticity and voice that was mine. That sounded like a decent Act Two to me. I wonder what Act Three will be.

In my new book, Endless Encores, a seasoned CEO spends an entire evening stranded in an airport executive club talking with a rising young manager who is about to hit the wall on his first failure. The less experienced leader is terrified that all he has ever wanted to achieve is about to be lost in a single product cycle. It’s a business parable, with only a few simple plot points, yet it encompasses a Socratic dialogue around what it means to learn from failure. Daphne, the veteran, has survived a seemingly infinite number of product launches, enough of them successful to keep her in the game. Paul, the rookie, comes to learn what it means to embrace resilience and reinvent himself to form a career of linking “acts” that over time reveal the arc of his personal development.

Neither Daphne nor Paul would ever buy into the idea of a terminal Act Two, let alone Act One. That’s a driving factor in the purpose that underlies their lives. Products have to sell, but more importantly, teams have to work well together and values have to emerge as shared conduits to satisfaction. Few of us get this right the first time. No one gets it right every time. You don’t have to get it right every time. You just have to know that potential for improvement always exists, recognize the aspiration for excellence as a mandate, and approach the ideal with unbridled enthusiasm. The curtain goes up on Act Two when you commit the passion to ensuring that it happens.

Don’t misquote or misunderstand Fitzgerald. Don’t tell me there are no second acts in our lives. As long as you are learning and readying yourself for what comes next, you can start anew any time you want. The courage to pursue that can only come from you.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Dreaming and Doing

Some people focus on dreaming. Some focus on doing. The ones who find a way to bridge the gap make change happen. Every once in a while, as Steve Jobs would say, they put a dent in the universe.

Many people elicit feedback. A few of them take something away from that feedback and apply it to what they are dreaming and doing. Yet too many solicit the feedback and then bat it away, a check mark on their roadmap to convince themselves they are not building in isolation. They have no interest in taking their vision to another level if it means wandering a bit from a too rigidly determined path.

The combination of dreaming and doing creates the flint and steel of innovation. Without both the status quo rules.

The combination of listening and interpreting is what hones an idea and an action plan, shaping and molding it into a viable product.

Walt-Disney-2Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” For decades I’ve been trying to decipher what he really meant by this. What I do know is that this calling is aspirational. It is incredibly difficult to meet this challenge. Walt defines a promise, then delivers the promise. This has taught me that when I make a promise to customers, I must be fully committed to delivering on that promise. If I allow a gap to remain between dreaming and doing, the dream becomes cynical. Failure is okay if it’s part of the path of learning, but a cynical promise is never okay. That’s when words become hollow, and customers abandon a brand.

Recently on a cross-country flight I saw the movie Jobs.  I don’t know if it’s a great movie, but it did remind me clearly of Steve’s near maniacal obsession with perfection, with making excellence a reality, with getting everything right. That’s a standard that will surely break the mediocre and inspire those who want to be inspired. He was a dreamer, he was a doer. In his own weird way, he was also a listener. You had to listen closely to hear where he was hearing, but Steve was always listening.

Walt Disney was always listening as well. He would sit in the center courtyard at Disneyland and listen to the people around him. He never stopped dreaming. He never stopped doing. He never stopped listening,

Over the past few years I have worked with several emerging companies, to help them craft and realize their articulated strategies. I have seen magnificent dreams get stuck either because they were too unformed to realize or because the dialogue around the table became stunted by poor interchange. When you travel a great deal and interact with a wide range of customers, you begin to see the difference between actual listening and pretending to listen. You also see the results—who is gaining ground and who is stuck at the table. In my observation, the people stuck at the table might still be dreaming instead of doing because they are not listening.

As a team grows, the voices on that team expand, none more important than the voice of the customer. Does that mean a powerful vision should be diluted into compromise so everyone’s voice is incorporated? Of course not! I have written about that many times before, secure in my belief that product development is not democratic. A big idea is almost always pure, and consensus is not the same as compromise. Yet I have also sat in the room when the small spark needed for bringing dreaming into doing was snuffed out time and again. No matter how many times it was said, it was not heard. Thick heads prevailed. The status quo ruled. An ordinary idea was dressed up as something extraordinary only to be exposed as counterfeit when stared down by paying customers.

The bigger the dream, the harder it is to get it right.  Listening, editing, sifting through, and interpreting feedback is your path. That’s how you build engagement. That’s how you build momentum. That’s how you build loyalty.

Big dreams are rallying cries; small dreams are not. Incremental dreams do not put a dent in the universe. Dreams that overcome entrenched hierarchies fire up those around you and fire up your customers. The fire starts with a spark. The spark? Listening.

Business is pragmatic. Say what you are going to do and then do it, otherwise your brand promise will be empty and your customers will abandon you.

Dream big, but understand that once you share a dream, you must be committed to bringing it to life.  That is a dream worth dreaming, worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, worth celebrating.  Hold people accountable for their role in the dream and cause them to own a share in its success.  That is a much more worthy endeavor than just doing a job.

And listen.

The end of each year is a great time for personal reflection. What can you do next year that you weren’t able to do this year? Are you dreaming it or doing it? And as you embark on doing it, make a point of listening to those you need to hear. Then make the hard calls, just like Steve Jobs, just like Walt Disney.

Elon Musk Blows My Mind

I don’t know Elon Musk. I wish I did. This guy knows stuff. He’s the real deal.

MuskIf there is a possible next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, it could be him. He’s not goofing around with thin stuff that’s going to come and go. He already did consumer software engineering as his opening act as a cofounder of PayPal. With the massive payday he got from eBay for the sale of his companya company that continues to operate as such an important platform it could someday be spun off again as an independent entityhe could have taken the path of least resistance and become an elder statesman of the industry, a board member, an investor, a wise individual of counsel. Not Elon Musk. He started not one subsequent company, but twoTesla Motors and SpaceXand leads both as CEO. He is also the CTO of SpaceX and the chief product architect of Tesla. Not exactly a path to retirement. He’s really, really changing the world.

I don’t know if he’s a nice guy. Like I said, I have never met him. But he is truly impressive and worth studying. Here are some perhaps not so obvious reasons why:

A real track record of repeat innovation.

A lot of people talk about being serial entrepreneurs. Elon Musk has pioneered three immensely important companies. The ability for an innovator to find repeat success in entirely new ventures is perhaps the rarest of proven attributes. Edison did it. So did Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. Musk made a mark in digital payment systems, then battery-powered automobiles and low-cost rocket propulsion. He didn’t start life as a rocket scientist, but he challenged himself to become one. Try to find a resume like his anywhere. I don’t think you can. He not only articulates a clear, bold vision, he leads from the front lines as a player-coach. He is simultaneously a thinker, a doer, and a peer-respected personal risk-taker with real skin in the game. He makes disruption make sense. That’s how you fire up a team and get results.

The work he does is important.

It was not clear to everyone in the first dot-com bubble that digital payments would be essential to our economy. Heck, most of us were lucky if we had a phone that could do email back then. PayPal opened our eyes. People have been betting against alternatives to fossil-fuel powered automobiles since the first suggestion of battery power on our roads. No matter how many failures it takes, we know that we can’t rely on the limited resource of petroleum forever. Space travel has been massively expensive, the province of federal bureaucracy and a very few goliath government contractors to date. We no longer have the luxury to spend endlessly on going into orbit and beyond, yet we know it is human destiny to explore our universe. All of this matters big time. Musk is actively pursuing a broad but selective set of challenges that he decides warrant his time and focus. This is real turf with lasting impact. It creates sustainable, well-paying jobs. Even when it fails, it moves the ball forward.

He is courageous and daring, but not reckless.

Earlier this year when Elon Musk was profiled on 60 Minutes, he said he was an engineer first. I do think he believes that, which is part of what makes him great, but even more than an engineer, even more than innovator, he is a pioneer. To be a pioneer in technology doesn’t just mean you have interesting ideas. It means you stand by your ideas and will them into being. Musk said in the 60 Minutes piece that with SpaceX he went “past strike 3 to strike 4,” not just betting the farm in failure, but staying with his conviction to the last test he could fund, even if it meant losing everything. He knew he was right, and if he wasn’t right, he needed to exhaust every resource at his disposal to make the case that he should have been right. When Musk recently faced a roadblock in submitting a competitive bid for a government contract controlled by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, he sued the federal government for the right to compete at substantially lower cost. Imagine the guts, to take on his own customer in a public forum, risking financial ruin for a principle. He won an injunction from a federal judge. Whether he ultimately prevails in winning the contract (and I think he will), there is little question that the price of that contract is coming down. Want to know how to get the government to think smarter about our tax money? I like this way.

He walks the walk, with standards that matter.

So much of what I write about on this blogideas like “good enough is not good” and “eat your own dog food”are very hard to understand unless you have lived them. If you’re lucky in your career, you get to work for someone for a while who grinds this stuff into your brain until you literally cannot act any other way, no matter the stakes, no matter the challenges. If you don’t get a boss who inserts that chip into the back of your spinal cord, study Elon Musk. You can’t cut corners on quality with the work he tackles, or people die. Of course you’re going to say, Well, in automobiles and rockets, people do die. Sadly in the march of progress where new machinery does fail, there is no way around that no matter the commitment to extraordinary quality, but the question is, what is the ethos at the core of an enterprise? Is it profit first, a love letter to Wall Street with lip service to safety and excellence? Or is it a standard of safety and excellence that exists a priori to all other decision-making that of itself creates value? When I see Musk discuss failure or success in any public setting after something has gone wrong or right, I don’t worry that his statement has been pureed by a publicist. I see an engineer who knows winning means perfection, and as elusive as perfection remains, he is never self-satisfied, never standing on his laurels. What do you really need to say about a reusable rocket that leaps sideways and then lands on its launchpad? The Grasshopper speaks for itself.

Why write about Elon Musk?

In this never-ending discussion of whether we are in a tech bubble, I have grown weary of broad generalizations. If all we are worried about is whether the stock market is due for a correction, then we are wasting brain cycles on an inevitable head fake we cannot control, so why bother? Our world has an abundance of trendy apps, head-bobbing diversions, and flavor-of-the-month prognostications of what at the moment constitutes cool. You know what’s cool? Stuff that lasts, stuff that can have a lasting impact on growing our economy, stuff that makes scientific dreams into tangible realities, and stuff that in doing so makes investment capital make sense. Musk is doing that, which to me looks like real leadership, and it feels good to applaud him. I don’t care that he is a billionaire. I care that he is a creative leader, with half his life likely still ahead of him to teach us things we don’t know and take us places we couldn’t otherwise find.

As Andy Grove taught us decades ago, Only the Paranoid Survive. Somewhere along the ride, Elon Musk must have gotten the memo. He is probably rewriting it with some form of ink yet to be discovered.

How Fragile Is a Brand?

Philip W. Schiller, Senior Vice President of worldwide marketing at Apple Inc introduces the new iPads in San FranciscoApple unveiled a bunch of new products last week, including numerous options in shape, size, and price point for a fuller line of iPads.  Many of these products are desirable and will make great holiday gifts, but none comes close to pioneering a new category of experience.  These are known as brand extensions, variations on a theme for already desirable existing successes.  It’s good stuff, and good business, but not much to get excited about — nothing like the first Mac, the first iPod, the first iPhone, and the first iPad, all of which constituted innovations that created category-defining icons.

Steve Jobs used to talk a lot about brand deposits and brand withdrawals.  A brand deposit takes place when a company invests heavily in making an indelible mark with customers, akin to their very first experience with a point-and-click computer, or a sleek digital music player, or an easy-to-use smart phone, or an intuitive tablet.  Brand withdrawals are usually harvesting activities, like brand extensions, where a company takes some money off the table without over-investing to get it.  Extremely short upgrade cycles for modest improvements in a device or high margin accessories like a carrying case are notable examples of brand withdrawals.  Steve would say you have to maintain a balancing act to infuse a brand with life and a company with cash.  I don’t think I ever met anyone better at this balancing act than he was.

That’s why I am starting to feel some heartache for Apple.  I am seeing a lot of withdrawals and not a lot of deposits.  I am also starting to see sloppiness as an acceptable norm, rocky roads that get paved over later without heavily pushing the envelope to warrant the annoyance.

Recently I posed the following question on my Facebook page regarding Apple’s release of the highly touted iOS7:

Is it just me or is iOS7 woefully slow, bloated, and unstable on older devices, particularly on the iPad2? My hour-to-hour experience on my beloved tablet has gone from impossibly perfect to mediocre. Is this the same Apple?

The response was mind-blowing.  Here’s an extract from the thread, names removed to protect the honest:

  • I’m not having any problem with it except for user error with new features. I do see some slowness trying to connect to the internet but I assumed it was my wi-fi.
  • ME: I don’t think so because I am having the problem with wi-fi wherever I log in, it’s just sluggish, and apps that worked fine before crash at least once a day, and gasp, I have to reboot!
  • That’s not good. Wifi is definitely a problem. Apps don’t usually crash unless I stress them by doing things too fast. You have to reboot the device as opposed to relaunching the app?
  • ME: After a few apps crash it freezes, just like MSFT.
  • Ken, I am having the same problem on my iPhone 4S and MacBook. I regularly close apps on my phone, but that just saves battery life. It doesn’t help with speed.
  • Yep apple has confirmed with me that new software doesn’t perform well on old devices. Happen to me when I owned the iPhone 4.
  • It’s also bloated and annoying on newer devices as well.
  • 4S is now super unstable.
  • ME: Yep, no question that the loss of Steve Jobs is hardly being felt in Cupertino. Brand is in hunky-dory hands.
  • My wife hates it… I won’t upgrade….
  • try running it on an iPhone 4. I hate it.
  • Slow and crashes. I’m running it on an iPhone 4S and an IPad 2. Shame. Shame.
  • ME: Wow, I don’t think I’ve seen this much negative love toward Apple other than at a MSFT conference. I wonder if they know. Maybe I should extract these comments into a blog post to help them understand. But would they care? That’s the real question. If they did, they probably already would have done something about it.

Brands are not invincible.  They don’t fly with a safety net.  Customer loyalty has to be won anew at every touchpoint.  No company is safe from creative destruction, not even Apple.  That is why the average life of an enterprise company today is about half as long as a human life, around 40 years.

And you thought your own 40th birthday guiding you into middle age was scary, huh?

In my view, Apple remains a legendary company with three key competitive advantages at the moment:

  1. Brand: One of the most magnificent consumer brands of our time, expertly polished and full of lustre.
  2. People: An almost incomparable assembly of talent in its employment to create, innovate, Think Different, and change the world
  3. Cash: An unfathomable amount of reserves to invest as it deems wise and appropriate.

If they don’t protect the brand, the other two won’t matter in the long run.  While historic odds of longevity are no more on Apple’s side than any other modern corporation, the good news is that Apple has built up tremendous goodwill with customers and shareholders to ignite the future, and I would venture to guess they will protect their brand, but not without a lot of pain in the reinvention.  That’s perhaps the biggest problem of being at the top of the top, and why it is so easy to fall.  When customer expectations are at the level where Apple sets the bar, you have no choice but to outperform yourself time and again.  That’s an outrageous challenge.

Brands seldom shatter all at once.  It’s the little hairline fractures that get you.  Those are waved off as no big deal, normal ebb and flow in business.  Then a hairline fracture becomes a crack, and the crack ripples outward like a spider web, and then the ceramic whole flies apart.  Andy Grove calls it the Strategic Inflection Point, the change in market forces that happens and you miss it, and then it’s too late to course correct.  You can remainder, but you seldom get back to the top of the heap.

That’s because a brand is not a logo, it’s a promise.  And just like when a friend breaks a promise to you, you seldom fully forgive that person or fully trust them again.  Apple has always promised us humanity above technology, so when they even mildly violate that promise we feel it, because we have come to trust them so much. When a promise goes undelivered or long delayed, like a next-generation product leaked to the public zeitgeist, word of mouth can be savage.  Will we give them another chance on a bad release of iTunes or a map app?  On a rough system upgrade?  Of course we will.  Until the promise is broken one time too many, and then we won’t.

Business leadership is managing part for today, part for tomorrow.  It’s a plate spinning combination of the big picture and the small details.  Mostly it’s about listening to customers and loving your brand more than they do, protecting that promise with every resource at your command.  It’s very, very hard to do consistently, which is why the financial rewards are so immense when you get it right.

Curiously, the Facebook thread I extracted above went on a bit longer, and eventually someone pointed me to an online forum where I was directed to adjust a network setting and reboot.  From there things got a little better, but not entirely.  It was then suggested that I do a clean firmware install, which was way beyond my alloted time block for bettering the tool I needed to do my work — remember, these devices aren’t your work, they are the means to do your work.  We migrated to Apple devices precisely because competitors put us through the ropes with reinstalls, adjustments, and tip on settings that experts could swap.  Apple won the last few rounds because you didn’t have to be an expert at anything, you just opened the box and it worked.  That was a wow, and it was always worth the premium price to those who wished to pay it.  There were a lot of us!

Don’t break your promise.  Sweat the small stuff.  Love your brand.  Love your customers.

Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.

Thoughts About Steve

Steve Jobs 1955- 2011Everyone who has worked around technology the past few decades has a Steve Jobs story. Some have observed Jobs at a distance and felt the impact of his creativity and decisiveness, others have worked with him directly and more explicitly experienced his creativity and decisiveness. No meeting with Jobs is forgettable. Most meetings with him begin with a non-disclosure agreement, and since no one is quite sure of the statute of limitations he expects, I shall tread carefully through this post while still sharing some of my own observations.

So much has been said and written about Steve Jobs in the past week it is almost daunting to try to add to the collection without being redundant. In a recent profile on CNBC Titans, Jobs was portrayed in a balanced manner, fully celebrated as the Thomas Edison of our time, of course not without a few bumps in his long and winding road, personal and professional. The day after the announcement that Jobs would no longer be CEO of Apple, Walt Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal expertly assessed the legacy of Steve Jobs as someone who changed the way we live. Coverage and analysis have poured onto the web from professional and citizen journalists, the very volume of which speaks to the somewhat incomparable significance of his contributions.

My personal experiences with Jobs were mostly tied to the launch of the iMac, right after he returned to Apple in 1997. We had just launched a games label at Broderbund Software called Red Orb Entertainment, and Jobs invited us to be part of his new beginning. Riven: The Sequel to Myst, developed by Cyan Worlds, and The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time, developed by Presto Studios, were both largely created on Macs by Mac devotees, so it was easy and natural for us to get onboard. Everything Jobs promised us happened, from the billboards to the print ads to inviting Cyan President Rand Miller to share in the keynote at the Macworld Expo. The iMac was unique, Jobs’s vision was unique, and he wanted unique products to be associated with its beauty. That was the beginning of Apple’s resurgence, and it was magical.

What was most impressive about the return of Jobs was how quickly he brought the core values back to the company that seemed to have evaporated with his initial departure. Meetings at Apple in the non-Jobs years had become, to say the least, painful. Apple had forgotten what was special about it, that its publishers and developers were a unique bunch, and that fully democratizing the Apple universe would serve no one customer well if the core values of Apple were not embraced. Upon Jobs’s return, those core values returned in real-time and included with stunning mandate:

• Intuitive user interface is not optional. If a customer needs a manual, something is wrong. I remember when we received very first prototype iPod, no one in the house knew what it was, but within five minutes of it landing on our doorstep we had it synched and working with iTunes. How much more intuitive does it get than getting a new high-end gadget that never previously existed and have it working flawlessly without instructions?

• Innovation is meant to leapfrog entrenched competitors. The iPod wasn’t a better MP3 player, it was a new vision of how music could be enjoyed. The iPhone wasn’t a better cell phone, it was a lifestyle device that put a computer in your pocket. The iPad wasn’t a better tablet, it was an all media delivery system that is light, fast, simple, and elegant. If Jobs was going to make incremental change, it would be on later versions of his own products. The products he introduced to market were to be leapfrog inventions.

• Think Different is much more than an advertising campaign. Think Different is an intellectual construct that begins by defying grammar and doesn’t end until we have exhausted elimination of the ordinary. It is sometime said the difference between a cult and a religion is how long a movement lasts, and for many devotees, Think Different is something of a religion. It forces us to challenge ourselves to achieve the impossible, and then when we achieve it, make it look simple to everyone else.

When I worked at Disney, I remember well the weekend we had a staff preview at our new theme park in Anaheim, Disney’s California Adventure. Disney had not yet bought Pixar, that was years away, so the relationship between the companies was quite separate. One of the attractions at the new theme park was a whimsical movie about the history of California hosted by Whoopi Goldberg that delved into what made California unique. That attraction no longer exists, but what I remember most about it was the section on Jobs, largely painting him not only as part of California’s history, but our nation’s economic advancement. The portrait was magnificent, because his contribution to the world through the Silicon Valley miracle was magnificent. It was more than California, it was more than technology, he was settling the new frontier. What felt weird to me was that what I was seeing was indeed history, but it was happening now, current events, a real man and a real life changing the lives of all of us with each new idea and grand leap forward. I never got to meet Walt Disney or Henry Ford or Sam Walton, they were more icons to me than tangible people. Steve Jobs had become part of our lore while he was still young and his legacy was unfolding in our time.

Yet of all the emblematic impact of Steve Jobs, what resonates most with me is what he means to the notion of reinvention. Here is a guy who was driven out of the very company he founded by the very fellow he had invited to help him run it. Had he done nothing else after that event he would have forever been part of the Silicon Valley story. Then he founds another company, then Apple falls on almost unrecoverable hard times because it has lost its way and he returns, embracing that new-new thing called the Internet and helping chart its hockey-stick future. As a sideline, he buys a small computer graphics company from George Lucas and helps guide it to become one of the most successful entertainment production studios of all time.

Like so many others, I am trying hard not to write a tribute, but instead capture the spirit of what the contributions of Steve Jobs can mean to every one of us, whether or not a devotee. The point is that reinvention is possible no matter how hard we fall on our face, and that is a lesson always worth re-learning. Reinvention is not the stuff of storybook fables and pep talks, but the stuff of necessary and vital resilience. We need concrete examples to see that reinvention is possible, that lives and devices and ideas can be reinvented if we have the will and commitment to Think Different.

For me, that is the legacy of Steve Jobs. All that he has accomplished in a lifetime is astonishing, but like his very small peer group of great visionaries who have led our economy forward, it is the abstract notion of reinvention that I see and feel whenever he is present, nearby, referenced, or invoked. No matter how many English teachers correct us, I hope we will never stop saying the words Think Different, attributing them appropriately, and giving all we can to reinvent the legacy.