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5 lessons I learned from a decade working with Steve Jobs (and advising other rock-star founders)

Apple’s former ad guru shares success secrets that should inspire founders and executives alike.

5 lessons I learned from a decade working with Steve Jobs (and advising other rock-star founders)
[Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images]

What separates a good founder from a great one? Every entrepreneur wants to create a company that is successful and beloved by consumers in the long term, but the vast majority of startups get stuck and, in my experience, lose their way before the three to five year mark.

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I’ve had the privilege of working with many great leaders including Steve Jobs—I was at his side for more than a decade at Apple—and Brian Chesky, cofounder and CEO of Airbnb. My firm, FNDR, has helped Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, Sara Menker of Gro Intelligence, and a dozen other founders of unicorns, including Farfetch, Oatly, Roblox, and GoodRx, build companies that matter.

The founders who’ve made the transition from seed to greatness approach their business with intention (more on that in a minute) and they won’t compromise on lofty aspirations, even if it means taking a short-term hit. They’ve shown the necessity of being fearless in vision, and ruthless in execution. Here, in no particular order, are five lessons I’ve learned from founders on how to build a lasting enterprise—and to be a great founder in the process.

1) They build a story

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Founders have the absolute need to tell their story, multiple times a day, so it’s a skill you must perfect. Is your elevator pitch truly unique and compelling? Can you tell your story in 30 seconds or less, describe what you stand for, and get people to care about the unique social contract you build with your users?

Brian Chesky at Airbnb relentlessly shares his origin story about hosting with airbeds in his apartment to design conference attendees who couldn’t find a hotel room. He continues to nurture Airbnb’s story today. Many of Airbnb’s financial filings and blog posts don’t read like legal documents, they are narratives about hospitality and community spirit. Airbnb has emerged as one of the few true community-led superbrands, because Chesky has built trust and cultivated connections with hosts and guests alike.

2) They bring voice to their vision  

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A founder-led start up has a truly unique opportunity to imprint a particular personality on the company being created. Large, established companies with multiple stakeholders rarely get afforded such an opportunity, so at FNDR we work first to “pull the genius out of the founder,” thus bringing his or her unique voice to the vision.

Voice is as much the “why” and “how” as the “what” of a company. If a business is a rational equation, we like to think a brand voice is its beating heart. The founder’s opportunity is to build from their experience to craft a unique company unlike those that have come before them.

Sara Menker drew on her childhood in Ethiopia, where she experienced that country’s famine, and her professional training as a commodity trader to found Gro Intelligence, an AI platform that illuminates the relationship between our food supply and climate change. Menker saw, in a way few others could, the opportunity to bring together ecology and economy. Gro’s mantra: “See the big picture, act on small details.” Toni Petersson channeled his environmental activism to start oat milk pioneer Oatly, which has lost none of its founder’s quirkiness even as it has become a market leader and publicly held company. Davidson quite literally used his own voice on the Super Bowl this year, singing ‘Wow no Cow!’ in the middle of a field, in one of the most memorable spots of the year.

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If you can create something whose voice builds a compelling human connection that appeals to your heart- in addition to a product that appeals to your head,  then you might just have the makings of a long term, sustainable company.

3) They never forget that product is a brand 

Brand isn’t something that’s over there, that you decide one day to invest some time in. Often, at FNDR, we see founders whose business has got out ahead of their brand.They’ve organically grown and found product-market fit, but often bypassed the critical long-term strategy and narrative thinking.”

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We believe that there’s foundational work to be done, ideally early on, and then throughout the journey to ensure that your product always levels up to your brand.

I learned this lesson personally through more than a decade working closely with Steve Jobs. Apple is widely considered to be one of the world’s most product driven companies. But every time a product was developed, Steve would ask, “What is the brand deposit?” He wanted to know: How is it furthering that overarching idea of Apple’s brand? From his critical early stance on Privacy in every product to Retina display to FaceTime to Touch ID, building these horizontal capabilities set a new bar for category excellence every year as a new iPhone was released and has laddered up to the $2 trillion company, we all know today. It was Steve’s leadership that made sure the brand story guided the product. He would never let product and brand become separated.

Titan provides millennials with an investing platform that makes expert, hedge-fund level financial information accessible to the masses. The product experience founders Joe Percoco and Clay Gardner have built is magical: It provides easy-to-understand knowledge through videos, tutorials, emails, and webinars, about the financial choices customers are making and why. Each time an investor makes a better decision, the product makes those ‘brand deposits’ that, in turn, grow the knowledge and understanding required to invest more wisely into the future.

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Most startups begin with a product idea, and you’re lucky if you build something with immediate or early “product-market” fit. In a world of software, in which growth can be engineered to hit development milestones, founders need to be mindful of what they’re ultimately building. The question in a time of “constant Beta” is “what’s your Meta”?

4)  They make the tough calls

With all the pressure on startups, it’s easy to embrace short-term revenue goals and never-ending iterations instead of remembering your intentions in starting the business, sticking to the things you do well, and owning your decisions.

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When Evan Spiegel revamped and relaunched the Snapchat app in 2018, he removed influencers from the friends stream, thumbing his nose at every other social media platform’s rush to capitalize on their users’ data. At first, the response was very negative. Investors questioned if Snap could meet its revenue projections, and the stock fell by two thirds. But Spiegel stayed the course because he understood the enormous value his community put on intimacy and trust. He embraced Snap’s intention to be the place to be “real with your friends.” This was a tough decision but came to be one that has set the company apart from others, and on the road to the exponential growth and long term success that we all can see today. Intention led the way.

Founders, don’t be afraid to use the word ‘No.’ As Jobs would say: “Good strategy is saying a thousand nos for every yes.” A thousand is a lot; you don’t need to take that literally. But the idea is that a lot of nos mean being really clear about the yeses, and owning them.

5) Be clear about your role in the world

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You certainly don’t have to know it all at the very beginning, but in my experience great founders often have an early strong sense of how they want to make what Steve Jobs famously called a “dent in the universe.”

It’s clear that technology has the generational ability to open up access and remove friction for the many, opening up new mass participation in previously restricted areas. But I think you need to be careful what it is that you are actually ‘democratizing’. What’s your true intention? There are far too many stories of high potential companies that strayed from the positive impact they set out to create.

When you have a mission of using tech to create something constructive and important to humanity, we believe it’s the founder’s responsibility to see that through, even at the expense of some tough growth calls.

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If growing a startup were easy, we’d have a sea of Apple-like successes. Moving to next-level growth is hard; it will create uncertainty for any founder, leading to second guesses and even self doubt. But there’s foundational work to be done by founders to build the clarity of their story and lead with a true ‘meta’ (not just a ‘beta’) intention. Intentional founders build a brand with unwavering direction, and following the five steps here, the path ahead may not be easy, but might become the difference between good and great.

James Vincent is CEO and partner of FNDR, a consultancy that helps founders build their companies’ narratives. He previously founded and led TBWA\Media Arts Lab, Apple’s brand agency partner. 
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