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The Failure of Steve Jobs & Walt Disney

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There is an awful lot one can learn from the remarkable Steve Jobs, of course, but one thing stands out to me–one single thing that can get lost among the many lessons his story offers: Failure.

The people who change the world are not brighter than everyone else is; there are many bright people with great ideas. It isn’t that Steve had vision; when I worked in the Bay Area, I found I couldn’t take a dozen steps without running into someone with an exciting vision for the future. And it isn’t that Steve better focused on the needs of humans; that is certainly an integral part of his success, but every organization is full of people capable of putting customers first.

No, the one thing that sets Steve Jobs apart from others is not success but failure. Reading his biographies and tributes this week reminded me of another hero of mine, Walt Disney. Their tales are remarkably similar in many ways.

We Americans have a terrible habit of distilling the stories of our great men and women into simplified and boring soundbites of success–Walt Disney invented Mickey Mouse! Steve Jobs invented the iPad!–while ignoring the long, crooked, difficult, brave roads they took to realize that success. We like to believe that success is what defines the American spirit, but the truth is the opposite: Failure is what defines the people who achieve greatness.

Steve Jobs and Walt Disney are American success stories–and they both failed in spectacular fashion. Steve Jobs produced the Apple III, a computer with so many hardware issues that one of the solutions (I’m not kidding) was to drop the computer two inches to reseat the chips on the motherboard. Walt Disney’s first animation effort went bankrupt and he lost the rights to his first commercially successful character (the forgotten Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.)

For most, the story would have ended there. Steve Jobs, pushed out of the very company he founded, could have spent his life developing products that didn’t push the envelope but delivered his family a very comfortable standard of living. Walt Disney could have given up animation–something he’d briefly attempted in the past–and sought work in the booming Hollywood movie business. But neither did–they learned from failure and eagerly dove back into the deep end of the risk pool. Said Steve Jobs, “It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me… Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.”

What is remarkable about both Steve Jobs and Walt Disney isn’t merely that they persevered after failure; instead, the defining characteristic of these great men–the one thing we can and should learn from Jobs and Disney–is that they never stopped embracing risk even after they achieved success. It is difficult enough to make risky decisions after one is prosperous and comfortable, but imagine making those same risky decisions after having suffered the kind of confidence-shaking flameouts that Jobs and Disney experienced.

Disney achieved great success and recognition with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and The Three Pigs, yet he risked it all to push his company into the dangerous and untested waters of full-length animated movies. He was forced to release “Snow White” sooner than he wanted when the banks funding what had come to be known as  “Disney’s Folly” refused to advance any more credit. Snow White earned Walt money and recognition, yet he risked it again and again on pet animation projects, live-action films and the riskiest bet of all–theme parks. Having tasted the bitter pill of failure, he nonetheless risked his reputation and wealth frequently.

Steve Jobs did the same. After being dumped from the company he founded, Jobs turned his attention to new risky endeavors. He launched a new software company called NeXT, Inc. and invested $50 million of his own money into Pixar. NeXT floundered, Pixar soared and Jobs was soon back at the helm at Apple. For most of us, the satisfaction and recognition of a triumphant return to the company that dumped us would be validation enough, yet Jobs took a salary of $1 a year and repeatedly placed risky bets on new business models and innovative technology. Jobs might have stopped at any point in his journey and retired with the kind of wealth and accolades most can only dream of, yet his risks and hits kept coming–iMac, Macbook Air, iPod, iTunes, iPhone and the iPad.

Most within corporate America work their entire careers avoiding risk. Some do it blatantly, taking pride in saying “no” to anything new that comes along, protecting the bottom line and corporate reputation from anything that feels a little dicey. Others avoid risk superstitiously, hiding behind focus groups, best practices and spreadsheets that promise (but rarely deliver) ROI.

In Human Resource departments, for example, the risk avoiders hire only candidates who present excellent education records; Steve Jobs dropped out of college and Walt Disney left high school after one year. In Marketing Departments, the risk avoiders spend big money on TV and print while moving cautiously into digital and social; Disney made huge bets before others on Technicolor in movies and on the nascent television medium, and Steve Jobs doubled down on mobile computing at a time when few expressed a desire for expensive mobile devices.

Avoiding risks doesn’t get someone fired. No one is ever called into a senior executive’s office to justify why he or she declined to invest the company’s money in a bold but untested idea. The risk avoiders rise slowly and steadily in corporate ranks, producing modest results. They never risk their reputations or career achievement, and when they fail, they fail small and justifiably–“The creative tested well!” or “The candidate had a great GPA from a respected school!”

Most of the time, these people guide companies to outcomes within a safe and expected range, perhaps stealing a point of market share from the competition. Little is risked, lost or gained. But the road to failure is paved with a thousand tiny successes, and while risk avoiders don’t fail spectacularly, their companies can. Risk avoiders cannot change quickly enough; they miss threats to their marketplace and are unable to rapidly steer a new course. Blockbuster, Borders, GM, and many other firms were full of risk avoiders who were constantly and modestly successful until they suddenly were not.

Of course, there are many in corporate America who embrace risk, but few do so like Jobs and Disney. If you are a risk taker, you probably do so only part way. You likely don’t bet your job, your home and your family’s future on your vision. Walt Disney would have lost Mickey Mouse and his home had Snow White failed, and he later borrowed against his own life insurance policy to fund the construction of Disneyland. You don’t take that kind of risk, and neither do I.

How much are you willing to risk failure? After being promoted and earning a healthy income, are you inclined to put that at risk to pursue your vision and deliver exceptional results for your employer? Can you defend and support an employee’s new idea when their last one failed thoroughly?

The lessons of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs aren’t simple or easy. Very few of us have the power to achieve anything close to their level of greatness, but the way we choose to view failure and our willingness to risk what we have achieved is, in my opinion, the defining difference between those who are merely successful and those who bring vital change to their organizations.

Most of us desire success and fear failure. What the stories of Jobs and Disney tell me is that we ought to embrace failure and fear success. The more we succeed and achieve, the less likely we become to accept risks. Jobs and Disney remind me of a Steinbeck quote–one I learned from Epcot’s American Adventure (Thanks, Walt!)  Steinbeck was speaking of our nation, but he may have well been speaking to every company and individual who has tasted success:

We now face the danger which in the past has been the most destructive to nations. Success, plenty, comfort and ever-increasing leisure: no dynamic people have ever survived these dangers.

Think Different, indeed!

This article was written and produced by Experience The Blog, an informative business blog. see more. 

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and Digital Innovation Strategist

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

I am talking to Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and freelance Digital Innovation Strategist. Tara was selected and recognized by TheNextWeb.com as one of the 500 most talented young people in the Dutch digital scene during the 2017 TNW edition. Tara is known for her creative, entrepreneurial spirit, which she is using to her advantage in leading the change in SMEs and corporates around the globe.

What makes you do what you do?

I tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle. Because of my curious nature, I am in constant development, looking for new angles and new approaches to business problems. Innovation through technology is exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. The most radical technological advances have not come from linear improvements within one area of expertise. Instead, they arise from the combination of seemingly disparate inventions. This is, in fact, the core of innovation. I love going beyond conventional thinking practices. Mashing up different thoughts and components, connecting the dots, and transforming that into something useful to businesses.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I consistently chose to follow my curiosity, which has led me to where I am today. If you want to succeed in the digital industry, you need to have a growth mindset. Seen the fact that the industry is evolving in an astoundingly quick rate, it’s crucial to stay current with the trends and forces in order to spot business opportunities. I believe taking responsibility for your own learning and development is key to success.

Why did you take on the role of Digital Innovation Strategist?

The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, I got frustrated with businesses operating in the exact same way they did a couple of decades ago. Right now we are in the midst of a technology revolution, and the latest possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge technologies are evolving every single day. This means that companies need to stay current and act lean if they want to survive. On a more personal level, I noticed that I felt the need to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to their maximum capacity. In transforming businesses at scale, I change the rules of the game. I love breaking out of traditional, old-fashioned patterns by nurturing innovative ideas. This involves design thinking, extensive collaboration and feedback, the implementation of various strategies and tactics, validated learning, and so on. I get a lot of energy from my work because it is aligned with my personal interests.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries?

Yes, I look up to Drew Boyd. He is a global leader in creativity and innovation. He taught me how to evaluate ideas in order to select the best ones to proceed with. This is crucial because otherwise,you run the risk of ideas creating the criteria for you because of various biases and unrelated factors. He also taught me a great deal on facilitation of creativity workshops.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend to have the characteristics of a transformational leader. People have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy is motivating and even inspiring to them. Even though I take these comments as a huge compliment, I am not sure how I feel about referring to myself as a leader. To me, it still has a somewhat negative connotation. I guess I associate the concept with being a boss who’s throwing around commands. But if a leader means listening to others and igniting intrinsic motivation in people, then yes, I guess I’m a charismatic leader.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, one hundred percent. I believe that creativity and innovation flourish when a highly diverse group of people bounces ideas off each other. Diversity in terms of function, gender,and culture is extremely valuable, especially in the ideation phase of a project, as it can help to see more possibilities and come up with better ideas.

Do you have any advice for others?

Yes, I have some pieces of advice I’d like to share.
First of all: Develop self-awareness. You can do so by actively seeking feedback from the people around you. This will help you understand how others see you, align your intentions with your actions, and eventually enhance your communication- and leadership skills.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable and inspiring people. They might be able to support you in reaching your goals, and help you grow both personally and professionally.

Ask “why?” a couple of times. This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. Make sure to often remind yourself and your team of the outcome of this exercise to have a clear sense of direction and focus.

Data is your friend. Whether it’s extensive quantitative market research or a sufficient amount of in-depth consumer interviews (or both!), your data levels all arguments. However, always be aware of biases and limitations of research.

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “No”. Don’t be an idea killer. Forget about the feasibility and budget, at least in the ideation phase. Instead, encourage your team to generate ideas without restrictions. You can compromise certain aspects later.

Prioritization is key. There is just no way you can execute all your ideas, and, quite frankly, there is no point in trying to do so. Identify the high potential ideas and start executing those first.

Encourage rapid prototyping. Don’t wait too long to experiment, launch, and iterate your product or service. Fail fast and fail often. Adopt an Agile mindset.

If you’d like to get in touch with Tara Velis, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taravelis/

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Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures

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Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?
@Spaceexecutive

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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