It goes without saying that Steve Jobs is perhaps the most famous business leader of the century, if not of all time. The late co-founder of Apple has become a deified figure since his death in 2011 aged 56 from pancreatic cancer, with each new product launch incurring a rash of ‘What Would Steve Do?’ think pieces and endless comparisons with current chief executive Tim Cook. Any new malicious rumour is ferociously slapped down by Apple’s PR team, his office in the company’s Infinite Loop Californian headquarters remains untouched from the day he left it.
“Earlier that day, I had taken Steve to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, over on fifth avenue. I wanted to see how well he could connect with and grasp something he knew nothing about, which was Greek archaic and archaistic and Hereclean-era art.” Jobs was, Sculley recalls, “absolutely fascinated” by the exhibition’s Praxiteles sculptures, amphoras and kylixes. Jobs in turn took Sculley to Tower Records to showcase his favourite music, including the folk music of Windham Hill and former lover Joan Baez.
“We were sharing things we liked as we started to build our friendship, so it was not just about someone from corporate America being parachuted into Silicon Valley,” Sculley maintains. “It was a multi-dimensional relationship.”
The pair worked in harmony together on Apple’s 1984 Ridley Scott-directed Super Bowl television advert, but cracks began to appear when Sculley disagreed with Jobs’ plans to drop the price of the Macintosh and direct a large proportion of the marketing budget from Apple II to the Mac in the wake of the poorly-received Macintosh Office network, which later became Desktop Publishing.
“I said ‘Steve, the only cash for the company is coming from the Apple II, and we can’t do that,'” Sculley recalls sadly.
The working relationship between the two descended into a desperate struggle for power. The increasingly-erratic Jobs tried to lead an unsuccessful rebellion against Sculley in May 1985 with the goal of replacing him with Jean-Louis Gassée, then Apple’s director of European Operations. Gassée informed Sculley of the coup, who confronted Jobs at an executive committee meeting and demanded those present choose between the two men as to who they thought best to run the company. They backed Sculley, and Jobs fled the room.
Apple’s board of directors supported Sculley’s proposed structural reorganisation ousting Jobs from the Mac division – replaced, ironically, by Gassée – and consigning him to the titular board chairman. Smarting and humiliated, Jobs officially tendered his resignation in September 1985.
“What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating,” Jobs later recalled in a commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.” From the day he left, Jobs never spoke to Sculley again.
Sculley speaks wistfully of Jobs now, constantly referring to him as “brilliant” and “very talented”, speaking thoughtfully and at length about events more than 30 years old.
He managed to maintain a close friendship with other Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (known affectionately as Woz), and their wives Diane and Janet are also friends. Both men spent time with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle ahead of the release of the Steve Jobs biopic in October, based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography. In the trailer, Sculley, played by Jeff Daniels, nervously asks Michael Fassbender’s Jobs: “You’re going to end me, aren’t you?”. “You’re being ridiculous,” Fassbender snarls. “I’m gonna sit centre-court and watch you do it yourself.”
“Steve and I had this amazing relationship, and my guess is when the new movie comes out people will get a much more accurate picture of what it was really like in those early days at Apple,” Sculley muses. “There was an earlier film [2013’s Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher] that just was atrocious, it drove Woz really up the wall because it was so completely inaccurate, and incredibly boring. It was just awful.”
When asked if he ever feels frustrated at how Jobs is presented, or misrepresented, in popular culture, Sculley pauses. “Misrepresented in what way?” he asks, tersely. People tend to draw on the more tyrannical aspects of his personality, I venture.
“I don’t think that’s fair. I think…” He pauses again. “People exaggerate, it’s simple to summarise and exaggerate. I found Steve, remember – at the time we were friends, we were incredibly close friends, and… he was someone who even then, showed compassion, and caring about people. “Didn’t mean he couldn’t be tough in a meeting and make decisions, and sometimes they seemed, y’know, overly harsh. But the reality was, the Steve Jobs I knew was still a very decent person, with very decent values. So I think he was misrepresented in popular culture.”
Jobs, of course, returned to Apple in 1997 and oversaw its transformation into the world’s most valuable company by way of the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and since his death, the Apple Watch.
Since leaving Apple, Sculley has chaired, advised and invested in dozens of companies, carved out a niche as an in-demand technology event speaker and written two books, including the excellent Moonshot. Throughout Moonshot, he argues how the next generation of million dollar businesses need to focus on delivering excellent customer service to succeed, now that lower starting costs and globalisation has intensified competition and lead by what he calls adaptive innovators.
Silicon Valley today has a greater focus on making money than it did in thirty years ago, Sculley believes. “But it doesn’t mean there aren’t people with very, very big ‘change the world’ visions. Elon Musk would probably be at the top of the list in this era, and close behind are the big names like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos.”
In his mind, however, Jobs remains “the greatest CEO ever”. “Steve Jobs taught us many, many lessons, and he was brilliant, but the reality is most of us aren’t Steve Jobs,” he says. “You’ve got to assemble an incredibly great team, and what most people overlook with him and I know, because I was with him, is that he was brilliant at being able to recruit talent. And he did it by his charismatic ability to tell a compelling story with metaphors and poetry in ways that got people to do things they never thought they were capable of.”
Last year Sculley co-founded his own smartphone company Obi Mobiles in Dubai, creating quality models running Google’s Android operating system aimed squarely at emerging markets. If the units bear a resemblance to a certain other high-end smartphone, that’s probably because Sculley hired former Apple designers. If marketed correctly, the Obi Worldphones could pose a serious threat to Apple’s current success in Asian and Middle Eastern Markets, I suggest. Sculley however, is typically diplomatic. “Apple is gonna do just fine,” he says. “It’s a big world out there.”