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Cover Story

Thorns to Competition
There remains a select list of leaders who come once in a while, defy the status quo of their day and age, and change the game for years to come. What is so special about these icons that enables them to set up mammoth business empires and give the shivers to those in their way? What is it that makes them irreverently give thorns to competition?
Issue Date - 15/09/2011
It took us around four years to complete the research for our book on marketing, Thorns to Competition, (‘T-H-O-R-N-S’ is an acronym for six competition beating marketing strategies that we’ve enumerated in the book! They are: Target it right | Hit where it hurts | Obsess with it | Reinvent it | Nail it | Sell it). During this period, we realised that the world of corporate professionals is made up of certain critically identifiable strata of people. There are employees. There are managers. There are leaders. Then there are great leaders who are true to form and process and give their shareholders reason to rejoice, or at least reasons enough not to despair at least once every quarter. And then there are iconoclastic & maverick leaders, a rare breed and in a class of their own, who enthral mankind at large even after they are long gone. This ultimate group of leaders – viciously mercurial yet flamboyantly worshipped in their own right – have not only rewritten the rules of competition in ways no one could have ever imagined, they have as imperially chosen to go beyond benchmarks that were believed till then to be unsurpassable. But what has been so ubiquitous in this league of extraordinary achievers who have given ‘Thorns to Competition’ in ways unequalled and unparalleled? Our research threw up some eye opening answers. On August 24, 2011, the board of directors at Apple announced exactly what Apple aficionados and more importantly, Apple shareholders knew was coming but never ever wanted to hear. Steve Jobs had announced his resignation as CEO of Apple Inc. even though he will remain Chairman of the board. This ended a glorious era of over 15 years of leadership in the history of Apple and for American corporations in general. After all the scams and failures and the raging debate among shareholders on what their top executives should be paid, Steve Jobs has been a breath of fresh air.

His legacy has obviously made the world of science & technology far richer. But quite ironically, the most interesting aspect about the success of mavericks like Steve Jobs is the very fact that it defies logic. Steve’s resignation letter to the board was like a befitting climax to a lifetime of contradictions, just for the very rationale he presented, “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.” For a man who took Apple’s share price from $16.5 on July 29, 1997 (the month he became interim CEO) to $376.18 when he resigned (a growth of 2179.87%) and mcap to $348.75 billion, a level at which it is now competing head on with oil giant Exxon Mobil ($357.40 billion on the same date) as America’s most valuable company, it sure is a fine time to be dissatisfied. At an mcap of $208.66 billion on the day, Microsoft, which invested $150 million to save Apple in 1997, is well behind!

But then, that’s not the first time he has taken the world by surprise. A number of people who have worked with him would swear that he is one of the most difficult bosses ever. It is well known how Jobs was kicked out of Apple’s board once, and that too by a boardroom coup led by John Sculley, the CEO he inducted from Pepsi-Cola ostensibly so that he (Sculley) would be Jobs’ ‘yes man’. Jobs, even though he had ventured on a long, and ultimately futile trip to India in search of truth before starting Apple and also practiced Zen Buddhism, was hardly known for virtues like humility or consensus building. And though this would surprise many, he was clearly disconnected to the market as well. He led a failed project to develop the Lisa computer, and reportedly took away the Macintosh project from a top notch engineer Jeff Raskin. He projected the Macintosh as the machine that would take away IBM’s market leadership in PCs. And the first Macintosh did have initial success, but the hype died down at an alarming rate. After leaving Apple, he set up another computing company NeXT, where he put in all his energies, and yet the company that really made him an icon once more was Pixar; which he stumbled upon by accident when he bought it from Hollywood producer George Lucas for around $10 million. NeXT, on the other hand, was acquired by Apple in 1996, which gave Jobs his second coming.

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