Debunking the “Steve Jobs Ignored Customers” Myth

Today at work we were fortunate enough to have Mark Hurst come in and talk about his updated book Customers Included. It’s all about working backwards from customers’ needs – which is a pretty easy sell in Amazonland (see “Customer Obsession“) – and hence recommended reading.

What I most enjoyed about his talk was his thorough destruction of the pernicious “Steve Jobs didn’t listen to customers so I don’t need to” myth. Few things in life are as soul-crushing as hearing someone (usually someone who has never created anything) tell you all about how they don’t need to listen to customers because Steve Jobs didn’t.

Any person who has spent any time trying to create new products knows in their bones that if you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to have some key insight as to what customers want – and the most successful way of doing that is working backwards from a customer need.

If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, then Steve Jobs’ Kaiser Soze impression was convincing folks that he didn’t listen to customers. Fortunately, Mark Hurst is here to help us dive deep and discover the truth.

Article #1 – The 1997 WWDC

1997 was not a great year to work at Apple. They were almost out of money and turned to Steve as the only guy who could (or would) save the company. At the 1997 WWDC he did a fireside chat with Mac developers – who are the most invested people in the entire Mac ecosystem. It’s their livelihood and they’re the most diehard converts. So, it was probably a bit of a surprise when this question got asked:

Here’s the lightly edited transcript for you:

Questioner: Mr Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man. It is sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed you don’t know what you’re talking about… And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you have personally been doing for the last seven years.

If you’re watching the video, you’ll notice a quick joke as a response followed by a long, awkward pause as Steve tries to think of the following capable response:

One of the hardest thing when you’re trying to effect change is that people, like this gentleman are right, in certain areas. …The hardest thing, what does that fit in, to a cohesive, larger vision that’s going to enable you to sell eight billion, ten billion dollars of product a year. One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and figure out where you’re going to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in the room. And I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it and I know that it’s the case. And as we’ve tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, um, it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer. Where can we take the customer. Not starting with, let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how are we going to market it. And I think that’s the right path to take.

There you have it: the greatest tech legend of recent years talking about working backwards.

Article 2: The Creation of the iPhone

So Jobs said he worked backwards, but how did he do that when creating products that never existed before? Well, the iPhone came about by working backwards from the compromises made by consumers in using existing (circa 2005) cellphones.

From the Walter Isaacson biography (page 466):

He [Jobs] began talking to Ed Zander, the new CEO of Motorola, about making a companion to Motorola’s popular RAZR, which was a cellphone and digital camera, that would have the iPhone built in. Thus was born the ROKR. It ended up having neither the minimalism of the iPod nor the convenient slimness of a RAZR. Ugly, difficult to load, and with an arbitrary hundred-song limit, it had all the hallmarks of a product that had been negotiated by a committee which was counter to the way Jobs liked to work. Instead of hardware, software, and content all being controlled by one company, they were cobbled together by Motorola, Apple, and the wireless carrier Cingular. “You call this the phone of the future?” Wired scoffed on its November 2005 cover.



The next paragraph gets to the interesting part:

Jobs was furious. “I’m sick of dealing with these stupid companies like Motorola,” he told Tony Fadell and others at one of the iPod product review meetings. “Let’s do it ourselves.” He had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to. “We would sit around talking about how much we hated our phones,” he recalled. “They were way too complicated. They had features nobody could figure out, including the address book. It was just Byzantine.” George Riley, an outside lawyer for Apple, remembers sitting at meetings to go over legal issues, and Jobs would get bored, grab Riley’s mobile phone, and start pointing out all the ways it was “brain-dead.” So Jobs and his team became excited about the prospect of building a phone that they would want to use.

This is classic working backwards from the customer. Identify all the compromises faced by the customer. Heck, test your hypotheses with your target market (rich lawyers with lots of disposable income for phones) before you build anything. But don’t pretend that this was just willed out of thin air.

Hurst called out one important corollary to the above: when deciding what the compromises are, there’s no mention of “multi touch” or “gorilla glass,” etc. All those fancy design features came later once the team had identified the customer problems. They were the “how” to solve the “what” which was crappy address books, etc.

Thanks Mark for a thorough debunking of one of Silicon Valley’s most pernicious, lasting myths.

A Lesson from Fortune’s 3 Lessons

I follow Tim O’Reilly on Twitter and, both as an Amazon employee [1] and someone who values his insight, I was intrigued when he tweeted this the other day:

The link is to an article by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford GSB prof and Fortune columnist, about what we should learn from the recent NY Times’ article on Amazon. I highly recommend you read it before continuing here.

Pfeffer offers us three lessons we can take from the experience:

  1. The leaders we admire aren’t always that admirable
  2. Economic performance and costs trump employee well-being
  3. People participate in and rationalize their own subjugation

I’m not going to comment right now on whether the lessons are correct (I think that largely depends on whether your liked the NY Times article or thought it was a hatchet job), rather I want to explore the first lesson.

In his article, Pfeffer states the following:

Simply put, dimensions of leader and company performance are poorly correlated. For instance, Fortune’s list of most admired companies, which reflects the size, financial performance, and stock appreciation of the enterprises, has only four entries in common with its 100 Best Companies to Work For list. And only one of Fortune’s most admired companies also appears on the 2014 Hay Group’s Best Companies for Leadership list. (Hay also works with Fortune to create the Most Admired Companies list.)

If true, this is a huge story! The thought that you have the most admired companies in the world (presumably 100, right?) and the 100 best American-based companies to work for and only 4 (!) overlap? 4 percent overlap would be terrible and this would be an incredible story: we’ve built a society where we say one thing and do another.

Unfortunately, Pfeffer doesn’t state who these four unicorns happen to be. I desperately wanted to know, so I decided to find out myself. And this is where the story starts to unravel.

First, while Fortune lists the 100 best companies to work for, they only publicly share the 50 most admired. I tried scraping their site to get the top 100, but for technical reasons [2], I had to abandon it.

What’s interesting is that when you compare the 100 best companies to work for with the 50 most admired, the overlap is actually 7, not 4:

Company Name Rank in 50 Most Admired Rank in 100 Best to Work for
Google 2 1
USAA 28 33
Goldman Sachs Group 23 50
American Express 8 51
Marriott International 37 53
Whole Foods Market 18 55
Nordstrom 14 93
Accenture 49 98

Similarly, the Hay Group’s Best Companies for Leadership overlap is also wrong. Their website only lists the Top 20 companies; I assume you have to pay for the rest:

Of these, Procter & Gamble is #17 on the Most Admired List, General Electric is #9, Coca-Cola is #10, IBM is #25, Unilever is #36, Intel is #40, McDonald’s is #46, 3M is #21, Pepsico is #41, Toyota is #24, Accenture is #49 and Johnson & Johnson is #11,.

This dramatically changes the story. Pfeffer’s sentences above could be rewritten as:

Simply put, dimensions of leader and company performance are correlated. For instance, Fortune’s list of the 50 most admired companies, which reflects the size, financial performance, and stock appreciation of the enterprises, has seven entries in common with its 100 Best Companies to Work For list. And 12 of Fortune’s most admired companies also appear on the 2014 Hay Group’s Best Companies for Leadership list. (Hay also works with Fortune to create the Most Admired Companies list.)

7 of 50 is 14% – which is much more ambiguous than the implied “only 4 percent overlap” in the original paragraph. Suddenly it looks like CEOs may be creating companies that are both worker-friendly and admirable. The story is much less clear. (And I bet the overlap is more than 14% if you compared the full 100 Most Admired with the full 100 Best to Work for; I doubt it’s a linear relationship).

It’s similar for the Hay numbers: a full 60% of the Top 20 Best Companies for Leadership are also in the Top 50 Most Admired.

These errors make it less clear that Lesson #2 is correct. If economic performance and cost trumps employee well-being, then why are 14% of the most admired companies also wasting money to be known as one of the Top 100 places to work?

All in all, I’m disappointed by the fact-checking here. There is a very important conversation going on around what “work” and “employment” will mean in the 21st century. This article had an opportunity to contribute but the factual inaccuracies make it difficult to separate the real insights from speculative narrative.

Note: feel free to double-check my work. I created a Github repo with the data and Python script I used to Fortune’s rankings.

[1] I didn’t seek anyone at Amazon’s opinion before publishing this and all the opinions on my blog are entirely my own. I am not authorized to speak on Amazon’s behalf; you shouldn’t interpret anything on this blog or my Twitter feed as being Amazon-approved. I also have no vested interest in whether you like or hate Amazon; it’s a free country and you are entitled to your own opinion.

[2] There are 350 companies in the “Most Admired” companies section. Each has a URL and I tried scraping the URL for each to get each company’s individual score. However, the pages render dynamically using JavaScript; I’m doing this in my spare time and ran out of time to figure out how to get the pages to properly render. This has no impact on the analysis discussed above.

The Question Being Asked

I went out for lunch with a friend the other day and he told me a story about how they had a session at his workplace to teach people how to communicate effectively. About 10 minutes into the talk, the presenter asked if anyone had the time. Someone said “I think it’s 2:10;” someone else shouted out “It’s 2:11.”

“No,” The presenter said. “The correct answer is ‘yes’.”

I told that story to another buddy and he reminded me of the scene in The Wire when a captain asks a rookie patrolman where he is.

The rookie replies something to the effect of “I’m at Johnson and Mclean” and the captain counters sternly with “No you’re not: you’re on East side of the 100 block of Johnson facing North.”

Both reminders that the correct answer to any question really depends on who is asking it…


I’m currently reading Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It’s an epic Russian novel about World War II, centered on Stalingrad-but really a critique of the Soviet Union. There are many great passages in the book, but I’m particularly taken by this one about a former editor of a Communist paper:

Sagaydak had a particularly fine grasp of such matters. He had worked on a newspaper for a long time; first he had been responsible for the news pages, then for the agricultural section. After that he had worked for about two years as editor of one of the Kiev papers. He considered that the aim of his newspaper was to educate the reader-not indiscriminately to disseminate chaotic information about all kind of probably fortuitous events. In his role as editor Sagaydak might have considered it appropriate to pass over some event: a very bad harvest, an ideologically inconsistent poem, a formalist painting, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, an earthquake, or the destruction of a battleship. He might prefer to lose his eyes to a terrible fire in a mine or a tidal wave that had swept thousands of people off the face of the earth. In his view these events had no meaning and he saw no reason why he should bring them to the notice of readers, journalists and writers. Sometimes he would have to give his own explanation of an event; this was often boldly original and entirely contradictory to ordinary ways of thought. He himself felt that his power his skill and experience as an editor were revealed by his ability to bring to the consciousness of his readers only those ideas that were necessary and of true educational benefit.

This is a brilliant way of describing self-censorship and paternalism. One of the true joys of living in today’s Internet-connected world is that despite the Facebook algorithm telling you what to do, despite the trolls, despite the filter bubbles, despite the content farms, despite Google’s algorithm – the truth is still out there and if you’re willing to look, you can find it. No one can truly censor your inputs (although the Chinese sure are trying…).

Portland in 2015


Portland in 2015 is a city of charismatic pedants. And that’s not a bad thing. Everyone seems to be making something. And they want to tell you about it. Plus they’re really into it. They don’t make a lot of things, rather they make one thing and are trying to do it really well.

Maybe it’s ice cream and they’re doing almond brittle with salted ganache. You can have as many samples as you want because they want you to. And that’s why there’s a line up of 100 people at 10:30 at night.

Or it’s espresso. Actually, it’s coffee. Because they roast their own beans and they’re so confident of their beans that each can be used for espresso. After all, espresso is technically a style of preparation. If your beans are as good as theirs, you don’t need to roast a blend for espresso preparation.

Perhaps leather? The family’s been doing since before anyone was living in Oregon and handing it down to the kids with every generation. Why would you ever wear anything other than leather and how come you don’t need a saddle that’s so well made that you can give it to your grandkids?

Maybe you think that bamboo should be harvested in America and you want to build a $100 million plantation and factory? That’s just a vision right now but you’ve transported bamboo up from Louisiana and you’ve build a showroom that includes a bathroom where the floor, ceiling and walls are all bamboo. You even convinced some guys to open up a bamboo-theme coffee shop in your showroom. And it’s amazing

Like whiskey? Want to know why it’s called whiskey vs. whisky? Can you savor the difference? We can help. And we’ll send an old-timey-dressed-but-with-perfectly-coiffed-tasteful-facial-hair-20-something-male to your table to both explain and pour something for you. He’ll serve you from a cart because… Well, because that’s what you do when you’re a pedant: you don’t just tell, you show.




The hostess has high cheekbones and brown or black hair. It’s definitely not blonde and it’s definitely not flat; it’s got a braid or a twist or curls – but it has not been flattened. She’s wearing bright red lipstick that contrasts with her pale skin. A complex pattern that may or may not be organic and possibly even alive is navigating down her shoulder but stopping tastefully before her elbow. Her dress is flowing but neither long nor short; it is made out of something natural and has thin straps. Your hostess is part of a tribe that appears wherever busy restaurants exist at the confluence of young people, cheap urban rents and good public transportation.



Everyone in Portland seems to be making something. The charismatic pedantry referred to above is a form of charming hucksterism for what is being made. What’s interesting is that the making seems to be about rediscovering the old and taking the good from it. Portland recycles the best and razes the best.

You see this everywhere. Glass and steel are superimposed near brick. The new wraps around the old.


The family leathermaker uses Square to take payments. That incredible coffee is prepared by a guy who has graphs showing different roasting profiles. The local makerspace is doing things with wood that defy description. CNC milling machines grind out new designs from old materials.




And Portland is definitely not archaic. The evidence of old does not dictate an absence of new. In fact, it’s the opposite: the city is a juxtaposition of the best of the new style with the best of the old. The tension over which will ultimately win is what makes the city so fun to explore.



And Portland remains weird. It’s the sort of place where your Uber gets stopped by naked cyclists at 10pm on a Saturday. And no one’s angry about that, in fact, everyone’s kinda sortof proud that it’s happening. Because even if you don’t know one of those naked cyclists and would never join them, you’re happy to be in a place where people feel inclined to do so and act on it.



I’ll be back in 2016.