Thursday, 5 November 2009

A tale of two Stevies


Fortune Magazine names Steve Jobs the "CEO of the Decade." Jobs, having survived two brushes with death, one securities-law scandal, an also-ran product lineup, and his own "often unpleasant demeanor" has become the dominant personality in four distinct industries, a billionaire many times over, and CEO of the most valuable company in Silicon Valley:

"Remaking any one business is a career-defining achievement; four is unheard-of. Think about that for a moment. Henry Ford altered the course of the nascent auto industry. PanAm's Juan Trippe invented the global airline. Conrad Hilton internationalized American hospitality. These entrepreneurs turned captains of industry defined a single market that had previously not been dominated by anyone. The industries that Jobs has turned topsy-turvy already existed when he focused on them."

Not bad.

Last week, Newsweek called the last 10 years under Steve Ballmer Microsoft's "Lost Decade," having seen the company go from "the meanest, mightiest tech company" into "something of a joke." Yes, Ballmer did triple revenues and built a successful enterprise division, and the Xbox isn't doing badly, either. Still, says Newsweek, in that time Microsoft stock fell by nearly 50 percent (from $55 to $29).

The reason? Unlike the techie Bill Gates, Newsweek writes, Ballmer was a business guy first and had blind spots - big ones, like Web and Search:

"Google got so big so fast that by the time Microsoft recognized the threat, it could not catch up. With Apple, the threat was not the iPod player itself but the Internet-based iTunes store; by the time Microsoft could create a credible clone of the Apple store, Apple had the market locked down."

Not great.

Now, I have friends who work at Microsoft (at least I hope they'll still my friends after all this) and I know it must be difficult to see their company so endlessly ridiculed at every turn. Still, I'm also an industry watcher and I gotta pose the question:


Is the reason for these two nearly parallel reversals of corporate fortune related merely to decisions made by the principal players, or does it speak to a broader shift in business and culture?


In other words, will business fortune (and Fortune Magazine) smile more brightly on techies who bend businesses to their will, or on businesspeople who run tech companies like they would one that makes soap?

If your answer to the first question is the former, then I think you could make the argument that the last 10 years have seen the technology brought to market by Mr. Ballmer (and more importantly, Bill Gates) has driven a profound transformation of the market and the public's buying patterns. Bill Gates built the market for home computing and in doing so built a giant. So did the wider-ranging impact of all those PCs change the DNA of the technology market?

Or, could it be that if you're the CEO of a tech giant and your name happens to be "Steve," maybe your chances of success are 50/50?

I have ideas on this, but what are yours?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To borrow Apple's own slogan, he Thought Different. Steve is successful because he not only would he listen to out-there ideas, he encouraged them. Keep in mind that his risk-taking wasn't without its failures. But that's part of the package. Steve saw opportunities where others didn't, and he acted on them.