There are, fundamentally, two subspecies of entrepreneur. One starts from the present, and visualizes the next logical step from where things are now. This type figures out how to make something better, cheaper, or more widely available, and manages to clear the financial, regulatory, and market barriers to getting it into the marketplace. The other visualizes a different world, one in which things are different and better from the way they are now, and then figures out what path of evolution brings us to that world, and, as the last step, what is the least ambitious step possible that will move things toward that goal.
Steve Jobs was one of the latter group, and one of the most successful of his time. It’s common to use the term “visionary entrepreneur” in describing the founder of any successful large-scale start-up business. Yet this term is only really applicable to the latter type. Often, what the former is visualizing is a really large pile of money, which differs from the ambitions of the common man only in the size of the pile. Steve Jobs genuinely merited the title of visionary.
WATCH: Looking back at the life of Steve Jobs
Each type of entrepreneur has characteristic virtues and flaws. The incrementalist is often better focused on the here and now, and better able to understand what the ordinary consumer actually wants. He has no contempt for small steps, and is willing to go for small improvements that, step by step, improve the product and cement the market position of the enterprise. The incrementalist strategy is more likely to succeed in any given attempt than the visionary.
The visionary, in contrast, maintains a broad vision of where a particular technological breakthrough will end up. He is able to visualize a different world, and uses this visualization to guide him through the interim steps. He takes broader leaps than the incrementalist, and, when successful, he is capable of rendering entire categories of products or services obsolete, forcing the competitors who remained committed to them to adapt rapidly, or die. Because the visionary believes that the new way will entirely supplant the old, he is not afraid to challenge the large, well-established corporations that dominate the field.
The danger of the incrementalist is that he may take too timid a leap, and find himself not sufficiently better than established corporations to withstand their counter-attack, which may be as simple as lowering the price of a slightly less attractive product so low that nobody will pay for the innovation. Or he may find himself overtaken by the more radical visionary, whose product is so much better that a halfway leap is no better than none at all. The landscape of innovation is littered with the wrecks of companies that believed, incorrectly, that there was room for a product 50 percent better than those existing -- for example, a machine halfway between a typewriter and a word processor.
The hazard of the visionary approach is more obvious, yet devilishly difficult to turn into a set of guidelines for accepting or rejecting proposals. The visionary’s picture of the future may be flat wrong -- nuclear-powered flying cars will probably never be a consumer item, for example. The visionary’s means of achieving his goal may be off in some important, unpredictable manner. Most commonly, the visionary merely chooses an interim goal that is just too far ahead of technology, market, or both. Even a correct general picture of the future is extremely tricky to turn into a concept for a financeable, commercially viable company, never mind the next dominant corporation of its field.
PHOTO GALLERY: From the Apple I to the iPhone
To fully appreciate Jobs, it is important to understand that he incorporated both the virtues and flaws of the visionary entrepreneur in large quantity. From an early age, he immersed himself in the small community of computer visionaries who, from the late 1960s and early 1970s onward, realized that a computer was far more than the calculating device its name implied. They realized far earlier than most that once information was digitized, it could be reproduced, distributed, and altered in an effectively unlimited, instantaneous, and free manner anywhere in the world. Furthermore, they realized that information in any form -- text, image, sound -- could all be digitized, and that at some point in the near future, it would be cheaper -- far cheaper -- to handle any such information through computers than in any other medium.
Cyber-theorists such as Theodore Holm Nelson described much of this revolution in his 1974 books "Computer Lib" and "Dream Machines." Although ignored by most of the world, small groups of computer enthusiasts gathered to discuss such ideas and experiment with building their own computers from the increasingly cheaper components available, and then, toward the end of the 1970s, the first kit and hobby personal computers. One of the most active of these was Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, where Jobs talked theory and practice, and met, among others, a young technical prodigy named Steve Wozniak. It was precisely from this visionary environment that Jobs and Wozniak managed, for the first but not the last time, to hit the entrepreneurial sweet spot: a product built in order to reach a long-term vision, but one that met an immediate need, and was neither so timid that it did not stand out from its peers, nor so advanced it would cost too much or be too far ahead of user demand.
The rest, as they say, is history. But it is interesting to note that throughout the rest of his career Jobs demonstrated in abundance both the virtues and flaws of the visionary. He frequently failed. But from many of the failures, he pulled out the basis of his next success. His first attempt at producing a computer with a graphic user interface and mouse, the Lisa, was a technical and commercial debacle. Yet the key technologies were then used as a basis for the revolutionary Macintosh. He left Apple and founded NeXT, which appeared to be going nowhere, while Apple appeared to be heading toward oblivion. But he returned to Apple, bought NeXT, and used its technology as the basis for technologically relaunching Apple. And he then created a series of products, starting with the iPod, which at first seemed to be sidetracking the corporation, but were in fact unlocking whole new realms of possibility.
Jobs was one of the most clearly vision-driven entrepreneurs of the last half-century. He hit the sweet spot, not just once or twice, which could be written off as luck, but many times. His vision led him astray on occasion. He believed so strongly in the integrity of his vision that at first he was hostile to VisiCalc, the first third-party commercial software application for the Apple II (or any computer), the development which actually sealed the Apple II’s success. But Jobs had believed that if a spreadsheet program were to be offered for the Apple II, Apple should write it.
Yet from mistakes and failure, his ability to learn and correct course, and his sheer persistence again and again pulled success out of failure. And that persistence came at heart from his vision.
Many people have visions. Most who do, do not have the qualities needed to realize them. Steve Jobs took that vision and by his qualities made much of it real, moving the world closer to implementing its promise. This is a sweet spot in life that few manage to hit so well.
Rest in peace, Steve Jobs.
James C. Bennett is a writer and entrepreneur who has co-founded several companies in the space, IT, and aeronautics fields; he is a founding director of the Foresight Nanotechnology Institute in Palo Alto; and author of The Anglosphere Challenge (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) and co-author (with Michael J. Lotus) of the forthcoming America 3.0 (Encounter Books). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.