(Updated story; originally posted on 8/25/11 after announcement that Steve Jobs had resigned.)CUPERTINO, Calif. ( MainStreet) -- The death of tech icon and former Apple ( AAPL) chief executive Steve Jobs Wednesday at the age of 56 was a powerful blow worldwide. But Jobs' impressive time running one of the most innovative companies in the U.S. left a legacy of key lessons for small businesses. After all, the company, more recently known as the maker of everything "i" - iPhone, iPad, iPod, iTunes -- was once a small business, started in a garage in the 1970s. Lesson 1: Don't be afraid to go out on a limb.
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) 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."
Jobs' dedication to the company (despite being ousted early on, only to come back to reclaim the CEO position in 1996), shows what's needed behind every successful small business. "He was a perfectionist at everything he did," says Tom Shinick, president and CEO of Corporate Development Partners and a professor of small-business management and entrepreneurship at Adelphi University. "It had to be done what he considered the right way. I view that as a strong trait in entrepreneurs and small-business owners." (Nit-pickers might raise such as issues as the iPhone 4 antenna problem, but even case-based design has its non-Apple defenders. AntennaSys, an antenna design and consulting firm, told PC World after the scandal that its tests showed "all the hype has been just hype ... It's not any more sensitive to hand position that was the first-generation iPhone -- and probably many other phones on the market.") Another key attribute of Jobs' was his enthusiasm about new products and the ability to convey that enthusiasm to the right people. His product presentations have become legendary. "You really need to sell people that you're going to be successful in the company in order to recruit" an audience, whether that's customers or investors, Shinick says. Lesson 4: Hire the right people.
Jobs made it a priority to hire the best and wasn't afraid to fire people when they did not live up to expectations, experts say, although he took steps to ratchet back his somewhat scary rep after returning from a 2009 sick leave. "He didn't allow mediocrity to set into the company and the products and certainly of the people he put around him," says Craig Libis, CEO of Executive Recruiting Consultants. Lesson 5: Execute. "As large a business as Apple is, they have very few product lines. They're not trying to do too many things, but what they do, they do it excellently," says Corey Ackerman, senior partner at Cornerstone Search Group. "The more you do that that is average, the less response from the marketplace." One of the things the company does best is producing when they say they will produce, and having one of the best supply chains despite its complication. "There is unprecedented demand for the product. They almost never skip a beat with their supply chain, and it's not an easy supply chain," he says. "It really comes down to the execution of the business. And the fewer things you have to execute, the more likely you have to execute them precisely." -- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York. To follow Laurie Kulikowski on Twitter, go to: http://twitter.com/#!/LKulikowski To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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