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Alien Invaders, Breaking Things and Steve Jobs

I love sci-fi movies. The best of the “alien invaders” kind is arguably Independence Day, the 90s classic where Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum make an unlikely heroic pair in the face of insurmountable odds.

It’s a great flick, and it was designed to play on the American holiday of the 4th of July, which commemorates the US split from England to form independence as a nation.


I heard a quote the other day: “No great story ever started with a salad”. I’ve got nothing against salads, but the quote resonated. Salads are good for you, but they are also kind of boring. If they weren’t, we would all get that off the menu, instead of the bacon-and-avo burger.


Great stories are also not low on calories. They come with big moments, with heroes struggling heroically before finally overcoming the obstacle. In the process, the heroes will often need to defy authority, fly in the face of conventional thinking and take great risks. This is how alien invaders are repulsed, new nations are forged and industries get broken and rebuilt.


Case in point: Steve Jobs.


Steve Jobs was never afraid to take risks, or break things. He purposefully separated the Macintosh team from the rest of Apple in the mid-80s, a strategy that led to widespread discontent and would contribute to his eventual firing from his own company. It was an early example of his willingness to make enemies and take risks, and in that case, it backfired. But he would be back in the late 90s, and although he learned some valuable lessons, he was still willing to make big swings.


And people went along. How? Well, his “reality distortion field” is well documented. He had the ability to alter his immediate circumstances, get his way and spur his teams and collaborators on to achieve deadlines and technical feats otherwise deemed impossible. This ability also extended to stakeholders, and one needs to look no further than to the way Apple came to dominate music distribution. How did they get there, from being a computer company to the world’s biggest online music store?


It's quite a story. And again, Jobs was not afraid to break things, colour outside the lines and apologise later. In fact, this propensity to act now and apologise later was also mirrored in his company.


Here’s how he did it:


January 9, 2001:  Apple introduces iTunes at Macworld San Francisco. Initially, iTunes was only available for Mac users.


October 23, 2001: Apple unveils the first iPod, which works exclusively with iTunes on the Mac platform.


April 28, 2003: Apple launches the iTunes Music Store, offering Mac users the ability to purchase and download music online. At launch, the store offers music from the five major record labels: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Bros. Records, BMG, and EMI.


October 16, 2003: Apple releases iTunes for Windows at a special event, making the iTunes Music Store and iPod management software available to Windows users. This move significantly expands the market reach of iTunes and the iPod.


November 2003: iTunes for Windows quickly gains popularity, and Apple reports over one million downloads in the first week after its release.


January 6, 2004: At Macworld San Francisco, Apple announces that over 25 million songs have been purchased and downloaded from the iTunes Music Store.


So first, made a compelling software interface. Then, designed a revolutionary MP3 player with utility and design that immediately made it a runaway success. Keep it exclusive, and then, as the world of online music burns with the threat of Napster, piracy and confusion, leverage the reality distortion field to get all the major labels to showcase their music on your platform for sale (at a dollar a song, initially, as opposed to subscription fees).


Jobs managed to convince the big players to allow their music to be distributed by him because the Mac, and iTunes, had a relatively low penetration at the time. They did it with the understanding that it was a safe bet while they figured things out. Jobs, typically, changed the rules quickly. He allowed his management team to convince him to release a version that worked on their great rival Windows’s platform. Windows, the leader in the market, took iTunes from a bit player to a major influencer overnight. Sony and Warner Bros were incensed, but by the time they could gather themselves, the horse had bolted. The genie was out of the bottle, and within a year iTunes had successfully become the world’s biggest distributor of music.


Elon Musk has taken over the Jobsian mantle of a maverick visionary. These men have a way of redefining the rules, tackling massive obstacles but making it work through a combination of dedication, sheer will and self-belief.


So I ask myself the question: Am I taking big enough swings on this Independence Day?


PG’s Pro Tip:

Take big swings. Rule no.1 in Business: Just don’t die. Rule no.2: If you know you won’t die, take a swing.

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