From one tiny (Apple) seed…

Little student learning math

he resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple, the company he founded in 1976 with Steve Wozniak, made headlines way beyond the technology community. Under Jobs’ guidance, Apple became the world’s most valuable technology company and even, for a time, the most valuable in the United States.

For a country like South Africa, with a pressing need to carve a niche for itself in a very competitive global economy and provide employment for its people, Jobs’ career and the company he built hold several lessons.

Jobs and Wozniak were typical Silicon Valley geeks, perhaps even misfits, but they were great engineers with a desire to build the best computer. Wozniak, they say, was the pure engineer, whereas Jobs always had an eye for what could be marketed.

Working in Jobs’ parents’ garage at 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos in California, the pair built the Apple I in 1976. Because Wozniak was an employee at HP, they had to offer the product to that company. Nobody at HP – ironically itself a company founded by two geniuses in a California garage – was interested. They also offered the Apple I to Commodore, with the same lack of success.

Lesson 1: Learn to spot the good stuff.

Wozniak and Jobs gave 10% of their fledgling company to a friend, Ron Wayne in return for his sweat equity. Wayne kept his day job at Atari and worked night for Apple – but later resigned because he felt the enterprise was too risky. His payout was $800.

Lesson 2: Keep the faith.

Apple’s machines and operating system gained a devoted following but for various reasons the company never really made it as big as many felt its technological superiority deserved. Jobs was ousted in an internal power struggle, and only returned to the company when it bought his second technology venture, NeXT, in 1996. By then, he had learned a thing or two, and under his watch Apple became a products company par excellence, even dropping “computer” from its name. It produced the iPod, a revelation in terms of design and something that changed the music industry for ever. A similar philosophy of sleek design and ease of use led to the launch of the phenomenally successful iPhone and the iPad, which some believe signals the beginning of the end for the PC. Apple now employs more than 45 000 people and is worth approximately $200 billion, more valuable than Microsoft.

Lesson 3: The technology is nothing without the right people behind it: learn to spot tomorrow’s winners early.

It’s worth learning these lessons because companies that start small, with a great idea and the right people behind them, can become very large and employ a great number of people. They also create tremendous benefits in terms of indirect employment – think of all the people writing apps for Apple devices, not to mention the retailers selling them and the people servicing them!

The good news is that South Africa’s tech scene has become more vibrant in recent years, with plenty of potential for growing similar success stories. For instance, our own Everlytic tool had very humble beginnings and now is probably the leading e-mail marketing communication software in the country. As testament to the fledging South African scene, Google recently launched Umbono, a technology incubation project in the Cape. Umbono is aligned with the Silicon Cape initiative, a non-profit community initiative that aims to bring together technology innovators and investors. Projects like these are vital to helping our country meet its challenges.

By Philani Mdingi

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