|Apple and the art of business
By Sreeram Chaulia
Since the ailing Steve Jobs announced his retirement from
the chief executive position at Apple Inc last week,
tributes have poured in to a giant of a business leader
whose personality rivaled few others in corporate history.
Hailed as a genius who steered Apple from a
down-in-the-dumps crisis in 1996 to the world's most
valuable company (this year briefly surpassing ExxonMobil),
Jobs' life imparts a message that individuals can make all
the difference even in a complex and diversified global
Of all the stunning insights Jobs has bequeathed, the basic
one is that entrepreneurship is an art, rather than a
science to be learnt through formal education or training. A
college dropout like Microsoft's founder Bill Gates and
Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg, Jobs read the pulse of
consumers like no other business titan of our times, and did
so in an uncanny and instinctive fashion without meticulous
market surveys, focus group discussions, or commissioned
One quote that epitomizes Jobs is his response to a
journalist when asked how thoroughly he had analyzed market
moods and tastes before introducing the iPad tablet
computer: "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what
This arrogant statement upends the mythology of capitalism,
wherein the "consumer is the king" and corporations compete
to serve this master by peddling choices. Jobs'
scintillating career demonstrates that the marketplace is
essentially a creation and a construction of wants and
desires, not an invention to satisfy consumers' own
Apple, now valued at over US$300 billion, is at the apex of
designing new gadgets whose need is not necessarily felt by
people ex ante, but which nevertheless become indispensable
for millions of buyers after getting launched.
"Coolness" - an ineffable quality - separated Apple from its
direct competitors as well as peers in other industries.
From the day the Macintosh arrived in 1984 until the latest
iterations of the iPhones, iPods and iPads, Jobs imbued in
his production stable a magical touch that made their
outputs objects of mass desire.
In assessing which model of an electronic device would
"click" and emote with the consuming public, Jobs must have
performed mental and psychological role plays wherein he
became the market, and the market became him. If business
leadership is about divining the market and its future shape
beforehand, Jobs was a natural at it.
Apart from design cachets in Apple devices, which were
premised on gut feelings about American and global popular
culture and psyche, Jobs deployed daring marketing tricks,
such as keeping the supply of new products scarce and
limited and whetting the appetite of customers until they
became ravenously hungry. Such a teasing marketing strategy
was risky, as impatient consumers could have jumped ship and
plumped for an alternative tablet computer or smart phone
that was readily available without the agonizing wait.
But apart from technical know-how about logistics and supply
chains, Jobs had the supreme artful confidence of a maestro
to execute this approach, knowing that the hungry would
salivate and wait for the "real thing" rather than
substitutes that lacked the X-factor of Apple.
Apple probably has the lone distinction of counterfeits not
only its specific products but of its entire stores and
retail outlets, as seen in China this year. Even the
recognizable facade of the Apple store was fabricated in
numerous locations by conmen in just one area - Kunming -
until the government clamped down. It shows that a strategy
of setting up far fewer sales points than is actually
warranted by the mushrooming consumer demand pays off
(provided competitors lack your charisma and pulling power).
The way Apple entered and then cracked the Chinese market -
which had hitherto been a wild goose chase for several
Western technology firms - is worthy of business school case
studies. Where literally every other starry eyed
international technological firm had beaten a sullen
retreat, Apple went into China with its colossal global
reputation and tapped into the rising disposable purses of
the world's second largest economy. Jobs, the demystifying
business guru, silenced market analysts who used to
highlight China's cultural peculiarities and how Western
multinationals lacked the local discretionary knowledge to
woo the Chinese buyer.
As the ultimate capitalist of our times, one who rivals the
industrial-age Henry Ford in ambition and vision, Jobs'
reading of the Chinese market revealed that culture and
local idiosyncrasies can be overcome through global
consciousness and integration into a seamless "world market"
that defies nationalism and parochialism. With every buyer,
including the upwardly mobile Chinese one, glued into the
same materialistic dreams, globalization takes on a new
universalizing force with companies like Apple at its nerve
Chrystia Freeland of Reuters has written about the "Apple
economy" as a distinctive phenomenon that globalizes
employment and life chances instead of confining them to
workers within countries where corporations are
headquartered. With the bulk its buyers, manufacturers,
salespersons and assemblers coming from outside the United
States, Apple under Jobs was the ultimate symbol of a new
era in economic organization of the planet. Local identities
remain entrenched in some spheres, but ever less so in the
high-technology domain, where the likes of Jobs have
rendered the nation-state a defunct unit of analysis.
Steve Jobs was like an orchestra conductor who had the
command to sway the audience the way he wanted them. He was
not an average soap opera producer who went by "what the
people like to see". Similar to the great auteur Alfred
Hitchcock, who confessed to "enjoying playing the audience
like a piano", Jobs delighted in deciding what form and
content daily-use technology should take, and the masses
lapped up his confections.
Few business leaders can deny that they nurse inner urges to
take the market to a different plane, beyond staying
profitable within the existing parameters. The premature
departure of Jobs (he is only 57-years-old) from active
stewardship of the most admired company for innovation is an
opportunity to examine what it takes for one individual to
remake her or his profession or field. It is a moment to
reflect on how the part can transform the whole through
unconventional boldness and inspired imaginativeness.
Reminiscing about a low point in 1985, when he was forced to
quit as CEO of Apple, a company he had co-founded in 1976,
Jobs talked about "the lightness of being a beginner again".
Each of us, regardless of the station of life, has a chance
to become a "beginner again", unlearn received wisdom and
think fresh. Jobs' take-home legacy is a lesson that
creativity is within reach if the mind is attuned.
Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean at the
Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India,
and the first ever B Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis
at the Takshashila Institution. He is the author of the
recent book, International Organizations and Civilian
Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict
Zones (I.B. Tauris, London)
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