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Does Steve Jobs Matter (to Apple Shareholders)?

Next week, Apple will announce its first earnings since Steve Jobs stepped down from his role as CEO of Apple on January 15, 2011 due to health reasons. So far, the market has taken a wait and see attitude as to what it means for the company. After a relentless rise where the stock has more than tripled over the last 2 years, it has been trading in a narrow range for the last 2 months. The market is undoubtedly waiting for the next earnings report and the future guidance that comes with it to reassure them that Apple will be okay without him. Or, to confirm their fears that it won’t.

Often the market overreacts to news like this. In the end, one person rarely makes a critical difference in a company as large as Apple. But this case may be an exception. Read on to hear why…and what the implications are for other companies.

To understand Steve Jobs and his unique position, first, let’s consider the cases of some of the other technology visionaries. Starting a world-changing company is a very, very difficult feat and in our view, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos and a few more deserve the billions that they have earned.

Yet, without diminishing their accomplishments in any way, greatness does not come from genius alone. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes a compelling case that timing is equally as critical to creating mega-success. Bill Gates was fortunate to have been ready when the PC was born, Jeff Bezos when the Internet first took off, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page as the Internet’s growth was making it too unwieldy for first generation search technologies to handle.

Strengthening Gladwell’s case is the fact that there are very, very few cases where companies, despite the presence of the same visionary founders, are able to replicate their initial success within an order of magnitude (or maybe even two orders).

Google is a great example. Google has probably tried harder than any other company to create new transformational innovations outside of its core business. Yet despite all the investment they’ve made in Google Mail, Google Docs, Google Books, Android, and countless other products, Google is still a one product company. Over 96% of their revenue in 2010 came from Internet advertising.  The only part of the business where they have achieved leadership outside of search is YouTube, which they bought.

Microsoft is a similar story. Practically all of the company’s success can still be tied to having DOS chosen as OS of the IBM PC. In 2010, the company earned over 73% of its operating profit from the sales of the Windows OS and Office Suite. If you include the contribution of the Backoffice tools (SQL Server, Sharepoint, Exchange, etc.), which could easily be considered extensions of the Windows Server OS, that percentage goes up to 93%. Everything else – Xbox, Windows Live, Bing, MSN, etc. – contributes just 7% of the operating profit.

This brings us back to Steve Jobs and Apple. What makes Steve Jobs truly unique is that he has done it more than once on a grand scale – In 1984 with the Mac, 1995 with Pixar, 2005 with iTunes, and 2007 with the iPhone.  My belief is that there are many individuals who can take what Steve Jobs has already created and take it forward. Assuming the company picks the right CEO to replace him, Apple should continue to soar on the strength of what Steve Jobs has already done. What is at risk is the next innovation that could take the company to new heights.

So what lesson should you take from Steve Jobs, Google, and Microsoft? The answer: Unless you have a Steve Jobs on your staff (not just a Bill Gates or Sergey Brin) you can't count on 'The Next Big Idea' to fuel your growth. Even if you do everything right, there is just too much uncertainty. Instead, what you should focus on is maximizing the opportunity you have. While Microsoft and Google may not have created a second transformational innovation, they made the most of the businesses they were in. They deeply understood their markets and competitors, strategically expanded into adjacent areas, made smart acquisitions, found new channels, expanded globally, and capitalized on new technologies.

In our Corporate Growth Planning practice, we work with executive teams on creating strategies to grow revenue 3x, 5x or more. While there are rarely shortages of good ideas, companies often struggle in sorting through and prioritizing them. In our experience, there seems to be a natural human reaction to pursue the 'Next Big Thing', especially in entrepreneurial companies. The real challenge is creating a disciplined and fact-based process that leverages all of the growth avenues available, not just the brightest shiniest objects.

This article was contributed by Jon Klein. Jon is the founder and general partner of The Topline Strategy Group, a strategy consulting and market research firm specializing in emerging technologies. Jon brings a unique blend of strategy consulting and hands on operating experience to The Topline Strategy Group and works closely with Semaphore on a variety of engagements.

Topics: due diligence, technology, market diligence, Corporate Growth Planning

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