When people think about the original founders of Apple, most people usually think of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. These guys are two of the most notable figures in tech history. However, Apple has a third co-founder that is rarely ever mentioned. In fact, the latest Jobs movie starring Ashton Kutcher didn’t even include him as a character.
Meet Ronald Wayne, some media outlets in the past has dubbed him as “the unluckiest man in the world”, because he sold his 10% stake in Apple 12 days after co-founding the company — his stake would be worth around $35 billion today. Aside from that, in the early 1990’s he saw that Apple was plummeting and decided to sell the original document of the first Apple company agreement for $500. After nearly two decades, that same exact document was sold at an auction for $1.8 million dollars. Now if you think thats not bad enough, at one point in his life, he had all his life savings stolen from him as well. He likes to summarize his entrepreneurial enterprises as always being “either a day late, and/or a dollar short”.
Ron has made some key contributions to Apple’s beginnings. For one, he drew the first Apple logo, wrote the original company partnership agreement and the Apple I manual. He was also chosen personally by Steve Jobs to be a founding partner because he liked Ron’s ability to solve disagreements. The 10% given to him was for him to act as a tie-breaker if there was ever a disagreement between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
We recently had the pleasure of being invited by Ron to his house for an interview in Pahrump, Nevada — a little town about 1 hour away from Las Vegas. When we arrived, we saw that Wayne lives in a relatively modest lifestyle and spends most of his time as a coins and stamps dealer to supplement his Social Security checks. The NextShark team was inspired and humbled to see the level of positivity and generosity this man has after going through so much in his life-time. In this interview, Wayne reflects on his life at Atari, forming Apple and working with Steve Jobs.
On if he gets annoyed doing so many interviews about Apple
No. Look, I live my life step by step, event by event as it happens. And by the way I got myself extremely fortunate to have been at a turning point in history and the establishment of Apple was indeed a turning point in history. Although at that time of course, nobody really knows this. It takes perspective of history to do that.
On his regret of selling the original Apple company agreement for $500
Oh the contract. That’s the one thing in this whole experience I really do regret. I sold that contract for $500 — that was 20 years ago. It was the same contract that sold at auction about 18 months ago for 1.3 million. That, I regret.
Losing his life savings
I lost my life savings in the Florida house. That was what obliged me to sell [my] house in Florida. It was an inside job. We figured that, and the person who stole it was caught, spent six years in prison, which didn’t mean of course a lot of good. But there was 145 ounces of gold, $3000 on face-value silver coin, and how much collector’s coin, no one will ever know.
On whether he ever asks himself “WHY ME!?”
No. As a matter of fact, it kind of confused people at that time. The fellow not only broke in to my safe by finding the combination and going in — because the safe is five feet high, four feet wide, three feet deep, weighs 2 1/2 tons, the walls are four inches thick concrete steel; he needed the combination to get in there. What he did was he turned it over to some pro because he had been shoving some stuff up his nose and apparently he threatened him concrete shoes if he didn’t come up with the money, so he decided to pay him off with my money. So he told them when I was going to be out of the house, and they came in and emptied the safe, and then they smashed the lock. it took me two days to get the lock open — to get the safe open — and I was waiting, wondering, hoping. Well they opened the safe and of course, it was empty. And everybody was wondering why, at that point in time, I did not go screaming up the walls? My answer to them was very simple and I meant it. I said, “What am I supposed to do, make myself sick over the sides?” I mean the situation has happened. I’ll deal with it. When something happens, you just deal with it.
Why he co-founded Apple, then left 12 days later selling his shares for $800
There were many reasons why I took myself out of it 12 days later. One of the reasons, it was a straightforward business decision in the sense that I have had my own corporation I told you years before, and that was when I learned that I was a hell of a lot better engineer than I was a business man. The whole thing went belly up and rather than use the corporate shell to protect myself against creditors and so on — which is what you normally do; that’s what you build a corporate shell for — I felt that it was my enterprise. It had failed because of my inability to do the job right. I blew it. Why should everybody else pay for it because I blew it? So all the creditors over the span of about a year were paid off a hundred cents on a dollar, and all the stock that I had sold in that corporation were bought back for the price they paid for. I felt very good; I could look in the mirror when I am shaving and not be embarrassed. But at the same time, it was a very traumatic experience.
With that reality in mind, all of the sudden I am in this company arrangements — it’s not a corporation, it’s a company — and who is reachable? I mean Jobs and Woz didn’t have two nickels to rub together. I had a house, I had a car, I had a checking account — I was reachable. Well when that contract was drawn out, Jobs went out and did exactly what he was supposed to do. He got a contract with a place called The Byte Shop to sell them a certain number of computers. And then he went out, also did exactly what he was supposed to do and he borrowed $15,000 for the materials necessary to fill the order. Perfectly appropriate. The only problem was, as I heard, The Byte Shop had a terrible reputation for not paying their bills. If this thing blew up, how’s that $15,000 going to get repaid? Do they have the money? No. Was I reachable? Yes.
Among other things, when Jobs and I worked at Atari… I went to work for Atari, the company was three and a half years old, and Atari was organized under the genius of a man by the name of Nolan Bushnell. Well Nolan, being the genius that he was, pursued exactly the same course that geniuses do when going to business like this: get the product out on the street. What it takes to set up a company is a nuisance. You want to set up a drawing number system? Fine, your first drawing is drawing number one; next drawing is drawing number two. It doesn’t work that way. Not when you have been in engineering and design and drafting for a number of decades that I had. You have to have a meaningful numbering system so that the documents that you put into the files were traceable; you can pick up one document and follow the thread of numbers to rebuild the entire paper structure for that particular product. And you do this through the structuring of your numbering system. And I had to rebuild the numbering system.
Jobs knew about these documentation systems that I had put together for Atari and he was very impressed with them. And I had every reason to believe that Jobs wanted me in Apple to set up and run the documentation systems in the entire documentation department. There was a bit of a problem there because I was a product development engineer on my own right. Even though I knew, at the time, that I was standing in the shadow of giants. I knew these guys knew a hell lot more about product development than I did. I felt I was never going to get a project of my own; they would certainly not get involved in slot machines, which was my passion; and the last thing I wanted to do was to spend the next 20 years of my life in a large backroom office, shuffling papers.
These were some of the reasons, aside from the fact that I was in 40s and these kids were in their 20s. And they were whirlwinds. It was like having a tiger by the tail. And I said this many times before and I meant it, if I have stayed with Apple I probably would have wound up the richest man in the cemetery
On Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs as risk-takers
Oh absolutely. Definitely. Just to do what I just described to you was a risk. But that was a… Let me put it to you this way: the entire Apple Enterprise from then to the time he passed on, was Steve Jobs. You may recall that when Steve Jobs was running the enterprise, it was very successful. He got into an altercation with his Board of Directors, in which he lost and he left the enterprise. And from there, it took a huge dip. And it wasn’t going to come back again until Steve Jobs came back again — that’s got to tell you something.
Now, what’s sort of a personality did it take to do what Jobs did? Personality. Okay. If you had your choice between Steve Jobs and an ice cube, you’d nuzzle up to the ice cube for warmth. He had me come in to help work out a fairly simple dispute with Steve Wozniak because he himself was not much of a diplomatist. And he thought that I could do it — I’m the adult in the room. I worked it out; Wozniak was a reasonable fellow, all I had to do was to lay it out for him. He couldn’t understand that Jobs’ position was correct in that dispute and that was it. So that was fun, but that wasn’t Jobs — Jobs wasn’t a diplomatist. Jobs was the sort of fellow that played people like pieces on a chessboard and he was very serious about what he did and he had every reason to believe that he was absolutely right – which meant that if your view was different from his, you better have a damn good case to present.
Steve Jobs as a ruthless businessman
Even at that young age. The last place you ever want to be was between him and any place he want to get to. You’d wind up with footprints on your forehead. I mean, this was the sort of guy he was. I had one altercation with him some years after Apple had gotten started — something he wanted me to do, he came to see me. And he wanted me to do this, and I didn’t feel that it was right. I think I was one of the few people in this world who said no to him. I don’t think he liked it.
On saying no to 3 requests from Steve Jobs to come back to work at Apple
Oh yeah, he was very strong about it, but I said “No, you’ve got your world, I’ve got my world. That’s the way I want it to be.” But I’ve been working for a company called LTD, I think it was, and it was a guy who had developed a chip that made it possible for a touch-switch to be expanded into a touch potentiometer. You do this on your iPhones and so on right now; you slide your finger along the screen and get your pictures to move and so on.
Well I worked for the guy who had the original patent on those chips that did this and Jobs wanted me to talk the guy into selling his company to Apple. And I said, “No I wouldn’t do that.” and I said I would talk to the guy about licensing the technology to Apple exclusively — no other computer company would have it — but I would not encourage the guy to sell his company because that’s all the guy had! That was it — that was the whole thing. I have to admit today that probably my decision in that was wrong. Not in the sense that it was wrong in my philosophical concept; I was wrong in not giving the man the choice to make for himself. And in that sense, I was wrong in that decision. But I know Jobs was not happy with me because I wasn’t going to talk this guy about selling his company to him.
His early lessons to Steve jobs
He came to me at the beginning and he was telling me about this situation that he had with Steve Wozniak. Wozniak had developed this personal computer circuit and they wanted to found a company. But there were other things that he wanted to do, things that were more interesting. And he wanted my opinion: should he proceed? And I said, “Well that computer that you’re talking about is undoubtedly going to be a very successful product and whatever it is that you want to do, you can do it a hell lot more easily with money in your pocket. So if I were you, I’d go ahead and do it!” Well in that sense, he took my advice along with probably 50 other people’s advice and went ahead and did it. But I also told him at the same time I said, “Look, one of the pitfalls you have to watch for is success. When you have made a lot of money, don’t forget what you wanted the money for.” He forgot.
I had the distinct impression that it may have been making money in the beginning, but not very long in to the enterprise. It was the enterprise itself — it was the game — that drove him. The money was incidental, although he was not very openhanded when it came to money. But nonetheless, I don’t think it was making money that drove him. I think it was the game itself.
A random story about Steve Jobs
I had a stamp store in Tucson, Arizona. And I got a phone call, from Steve Jobs, direct. It hadn’t happen before! “Hi Steve, how’re you doing?” He says, “Look, I haven’t got a whole lot of time. There would be airline tickets waiting for you at the airport and my chauffeur would pick you up when you get here at San Jose and we’ll set you up — no it was San Francisco because they set me up at the Mark Hopkins. And I said, “Well what’s this all about?” He says, “We’re doing a presentation and I thought it would be nice of you to join us.
Okay, fine, but I was wondering what the heck is this is all about. What’s going on here because Steve… this is out of character for Steve Jobs. But anyway, okay. So I got on the plane, got picked up on the airport, they set me up in the hotel. The next morning, he has people come in and pick me up and take me down to the auditorium where they were doing a presentation on G3, I think it was — something like that. They were presenting [the iMac]. Anyway, he did this spiel on stage and afterwards he comes and gets me and we go over the back and there’s a buffet with coffee and sandwiches and whatever and we took the tour of the convention, and we jumped in the car we go off to the Apple facility where Steve Wozniak joins us in the cafeteria, had lunch and we’re sitting in this table out in the patio. They’re carrying on this conversation about absolutely nothing — small talk — and then that’s it. Have a good trip back and we’ll see you! And I’m thinking was all, “What the heck was this all about?” And I never was able in my life to find out what the heck it was all about. It was very anticlimactic! At the end, as I’m on the plane going home, “It must have been something he had in mind! What did he do this for?” I couldn’t understand! [I] still don’t know to this day what that was all about.
Follow Ronald Wayne
Book #1: Adventures of an Apple Founder
Book #2: Insolence of Office
Photography by Melly Lee