The superior businessman: Jobs or Woz?

Filed under History, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak;

The current state of the economy presents unique challenges, but also unique opportunities. As larger companies fold under the weight of their own bulk, new enterprises are small, nimble, and innovate enough to fill new niches and needs. What what better innovator and businessman to inspire budding entrepreneurs than Apple’s greatest Steve?

Jobs? No — Wozniak.

So says Trevor Owen, founder of the Lean Startup Machine. In his essay, "Why Founders Should Emulate Wozniak, Not Jobs" he makes several arguments:

  • • Steve Jobs played a minor role in Apple’s early success with the Apple II
  • • When Steve Jobs created the breakthrough Macintosh he had immense resources & clout
  • • The Macintosh underperformed against the Apple II, essentially was a flop
  • • NeXT Computers released a series of product flops
  • • Jobs’s later success (as a CEO) is due to his failures

It’s not unusual to question Steve Jobs’ role in the design and success of Apple’s products, but this is the first time I’ve seen his business acumen also fall under scrutiny. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is convinced. Over at Forbes, E.D. Kain has some objections:

… if Wozniak had been in charge, it’s doubtful Apple would have been much of a company at all. Wozniak wanted to open the whole project up to all-comers. His enormous skill was in making things tick – not in building a company from the ground up…

… it really helps to couple visionary businessmen with brilliant engineers. So what if Jobs got ahead of himself in the early years? Start-ups today shouldn’t just look at the early careers of tech businessmen; they should pay attention to the entire package.

What do you think? Could Woz have built the Apple empire without Jobs? Could Jobs, without Woz?

  1. No and no.

    It was a perfect combination of the right pair at the right time.

    The brilliant engineer rarely (ever?) has the skills necessary to maintain and grow a company. Anyone can start a company. Some engineers can keep track of the money being made, or the business plan to keep the company going – but usually not both. A smart businessman is smart about business because he learned it well at school, and didn’t waste his time trying to invent something, a skill he usually lacks.

    The history of personal computers is littered with people who were very smart in being able to design and build a device of some sort – computer, peripheral, service, software – but really were not savvy with the whole business thing.

    Where would Microsoft have been today if Gary Kildall (creator of CP/M) had put himself under a businessman who realized how important a contract with IBM could be? There would have been no MS-DOS, probably no Windows, and no mega-rich Bill Gates.

    Similarly, Wozniak would have been happy working for Hewlett Packard and giving away his plans for his 6502 computer to his friends at the Homebrew Computer Club. Maybe, when he came up with the enhancements that became the Apple II, someone else would have approached him and suggested that it be made into a commercial product. Several members of that club tried to do that very thing. None of their products survived for very long. Any of them COULD have – with proper business management.

    Furthermore, business knowledge was not the only thing necessary to take a product and build it into a successful company. There were a number of computer businesses in the early days who DID have a business plan and educated leadership. Few had the availability of financial resources (venture capital, or a really good business loan) to be able to do the necessary advertising or product promotion to let the world know about their great computer / software product / hardware add on.

    To be successful at this game, it would appear, one needs a great product, aggressive marketing, money to DO the marketing, business knowledge to move things from version 1 to version 2 and beyond, and a demand for the product. Apple had the great good fortune to have all of these pieces in place at the same time. And despite all of the company’s missteps over the years, they managed to survive and even thrive. No other early tech company besides Microsoft can say that. (And Microsoft had the same combination of factors that made it possible for them to survive.)

  2. Without Jobs, the Apple II would’ve been a bare circuit board, and maybe only a one-off – so the Apple empire wouldn’t have existed, even as a startup. Woz has been documented as saying that he wasn’t really interested in commercialization, more the making cool computers aspect.

    If the Apple II were commercialized by anyone else in the Homebrew Computer Club, it would’ve been a footnote in history, most likely – it would’ve been stuck in an Altair-like box, and sold to the odd hobbyist. What Jobs did was put the circuit board that Woz had designed in a package that was acceptable for the mass market, and sell it.

    Without Woz, I think there could’ve been an Apple Computer still, had Jobs had enough interest in finding an engineer for it. While Woz is an extremely talented engineer, he wasn’t the only talented engineer. (However, my understanding is that the catalyst was Woz designing the Apple-1, and then Jobs wanting to market it, so… that would mean, if there were no Woz, Apple wouldn’t have started up.)