(Updated story; originally posted on 8/25/11 after announcement that Steve Jobs had resigned.)
Perhaps this is the biggest lesson of all from Jobs' time with Apple. He pushed thresholds by giving consumers what they wanted probably even before they knew they wanted it, including by eliminating the floppy disk drive from computers. Users were outraged; but few miss the 3.5-inch disks, which can hold up to 1.44 MB of data, since storage quickly reached the point that 500 gigabytes is common for a laptop. "What Steve Jobs brings to Apple is he is an incredible innovator, and this is something small-business owners can really emulate with great success," says Alice Bredin, small-business adviser to American Express (AXP - Get Report) OPEN and president of Bredin Business Information. "He doesn't look at an offering and industry and just slightly tweak -- he really starts with what should it be," whereas other companies tend to look at what is being done now and simply hone the offering, Bredin says. Of course, when you take Jobs-style risks, you'd better have Jobs-style confidence the risk is worth it. Usually you can give customers what they want by really listening to them. Sometimes it's the unspoken needs that are vital, says Sam Kumar, CEO of MYCO Medical, a medical device supply firm in Cary, N.C. "That avoids mediocrity and sameness, surprises customers with 'cool' new products so they will love you and praise your service," he says, noting that by doing that MYCO has been able to compete against larger, multibillion-dollar companies. Lesson 2: Have a succession plan.
While small-business owners typically wear many hats, preparing for the future or an unforeseen event such as a death or sickness of key personnel may not be a priority. This is a mistake, says Carolyn Thompson, director of the metro-DC region of Dixon Hughes Goodman's human resource services division. While Apple is known for its product innovation, it also had a succession plan. Thompson says it's important to "spread out the intellectual capital" among two or three key contributors, so someone else can step in to run the business if necessary. Jobs "surrounded himself with strong people and good succession planning. And that's where a lot of small businesses fail," she says. "That's the No. 1 takeaway from all of this -- you have to have some kind of No. 2 person ready. In a small business, that may be a family member or an employee."