For many of us, Steve Jobs is seen as an iconic innovator. But in addition to his meticulous work creating new, game-changing products, he put equal hard work into preventing those products’ details from being leaked to the press before they were publicly launched. With his need for both personal and professional privacy, and with the bad press surrounding him in the mid-80s, you’d think Jobs wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near a journalist at that time.
But to the surprise of many, documentary photographer Doug Menuez was given the rare opportunity by Steve Jobs himself to document what was happening inside NeXT, the computer platform development company Jobs created after being ousted from Apple in 1985. From there, Doug spent the next three years observing Jobs build a company from the ground up. In addition to his time with Jobs, Doug has spent years documenting some of the early years of some of today’s biggest Silicon Valley business moguls.
Recently, we had the chance to catch up with Doug Menuez over the phone. In our conversation, Doug compares the differences between the entrepreneurs of today and yesterday, explains what it was like interacting with Steve Jobs at such close proximity and tells us what he wants young entrepreneurs to learn from his new book “Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley.”
You began covering Silicon Valley early on. How has the culture changed?
[pullquote]…what I find a lot of times today is that people in Silicon Valley aren’t interested in the history; they’re only looking forward to the next deal or the next cool thing.[/pullquote]“Steve Jobs and his gang knew the history of Silicon Valley inside and out. They knew who Bob Noyce was, they knew whose shoulders they were standing on. It was a rare time in history when the ground had been prepared by so much previous breakthrough work and there was a ton of investments coming in and you have this pool of young, talented and hungry people. It was an extraordinary time. But they knew their history and so they were able to benefit from what worked and what didn’t work as they pursued impossible stuff. I think what I find a lot of times today is that people in Silicon Valley aren’t interested in the history; they’re only looking forward to the next deal or the next cool thing. We’re kind of in an echo chamber where what’s cool and trending is what people focus on. They’re not pulling their heads up and looking to the future based on what they know has been done in the past. I think there’s a link to the past that’s missing.”
I think there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening all over the world. There’s a whole new generation of young, hungry entrepreneurs and innovators coming and I wanna help inspire through sharing stories. One of the feedbacks that I get is that people don’t always realize how hard it was in the 80s and the sacrifices that were made, and I think that helps people when they start hitting the wall. If you’re in your first startup and you’re hitting a wall, it’s pretty frustrating and pretty scary and frightening, and it’s good to know what other people went through just so you have some solidarity and keep fighting. Steve [Jobs] failed for 10 years; he struggled and failed and he was humiliated by the press after he left Apple. A lot of people today don’t realize it. They know how successful he is today, but they don’t realize how hard he worked to make the comeback.”
Can you compare and contrast the entrepreneurs you covered back then to entrepreneurs of today?
“The people in the past I found to be the most successful had a value system that was very driven by the idea to improve human life. They wanted to contribute something meaningful. It was exciting and joyful to invent something unique, new and really cool. It was just a sheer joy of invention, but they really did have this altruistic bend that the technology would help improve lives. Now, I think you have more emphasis on making money, and that’s because the investment cycle is so much shorter. People wanna get their money faster so there’s a real emphasis on that. We’re also working to make technology iterations of stuff that already exist to try recreating what’s been successful. ‘What’s the next Whatsapp?!’ We’re not trying to create a new platform, we’re not trying to do the next level right now as much. I mean, we are — quantum computing,,for example, but it’s not scaling yet. So when you think back before personal computers, when the personal computer became viral it was adopted by a lot of cultures; that was a massive shift in the economy, in the culture and everything. So right now we’re just doing iterations, really cool iterations, but that’s because we’re in between this new cycle in technology development. We haven’t really hit that wave.”
Why do you think young entrepreneurs today are not “innovating” like those in the past?
“We’re now driven by what happened when the dot-com collapse happened. People pulled back from the big dream, the big idea, and they lost so much money that it just created a natural conservative reaction to do shorter term projects … that mentality of shorter term investment, I mean, what can you do? If you are an entrepreneur and starting a company, what can you do short term? You can do apps, you can do web stuff. So that’s cool, and social media has a huge impact, but it isn’t yet creating the sustainable job creation that it could. I think it will and we’ll see.”
How important do you think culture is in a startup?
[pullquote]I just think humility is really important. If you’re trying to start a company, have awareness history and see if you can learn lessons from that and avoid mistakes.”[/pullquote]“Everybody needs to be on the same page with the goals of the company, and that’s culture. There’s a saying in the Valley that ‘Culture is everything.’ It’s just really, really interesting how you see the disconnect between people in Silicon Valley who think their technology is obviously better than anything and definitely the wider culture should accept it and understand it, and not necessarily paying attention to how people and the real world works, how people operate in tradition and the comfort level for the user base that they wanna convert.
There’s this sort of assumed idea that because it’s better technology, the objections that people raise don’t matter. I think we are seeing that with Uber. There’s a certain naivete mixed with arrogance, perhaps. Man, I just think humility is really important. If you’re trying to start a company, have awareness history and see if you can learn lessons from that and avoid mistakes.”
If you had to pick one entrepreneur today that encompasses those qualities of those past entrepreneurs you’ve covered, who would it be?
“My hero right now in the U.S. is Elon Musk. I think he’s the classic dreamer and moonshot guy who’s fighting for his dreams. He’s been doing that for quite a while and has accomplished the most outstanding stuff. But there’s lots that’s still out there.”
Describe your first time meeting Steve Jobs.
“My memory is the first time meeting him was going out to the NeXT. I was very nervous. I was gonna meet him to get final approval to do my project, and I got there early but my memory of it is Susan Care and Dan’l Lewin coming down the stairs — they were instrumental in getting me this access and this meeting with Steve. Then Steve came down the stairs just in a rush of energy and looked at me, and they said, “This is Doug. He’s gonna do this thing,” and he looked at me and smiled, shook my hand and said, “Great!” then walks away. That was it. I just started working and shooting. When I didn’t shoot much I walked around and met everybody.”
Would you say that your interaction with Steve was relatively limited?
“Well, I tried to stay out of Steve’s way and out of his sight because I knew Steve was very controlling. I was in a room with him for a long time. I was in all the meetings and I could go in boardrooms and walk around in the secret labs. He never once told me not to shoot something. Occasionally Steve would come over and sit with me, talk to me and ask me questions. But once in a while, I’d go up to him and ask him a question or say something but we never had a huge amount of interaction. Occasionally he would look at me and smile; he was always very nice to me. I think he wanted to be friends and was trying to be closer to me, but I felt like I had to maintain objectivity. And clearly he was a magnetic personality and I didn’t want to get sucked in to his force field and I wanted to remain impartial, so I kind of kept my distance on purpose.”
Do you think it is unusual that a private guy like Steve Jobs gave you so much clearance into his life and company?
“Well, I think it was unusual and I never saw that happen with any other journalist. But remember, I was inside so I had this special relationship and he blessed and trusted me. So there was an exception made for the rest of his life when dealing with a lot of photographers — he was pretty controlling. I also think he felt that even though I was working with Life magazine I was embedded and there was an inherent control for him ultimately because he felt he could control it somehow probably. It’s really hard to figure it out. I don’t know, I just think I got an exception and free pass and I can’t explain it!
But he liked my work and I was giving him prints and he was hanging and framing and put them up on the walls. Years later, I heard through friends that he was supportive of my project. So I know he kept an eye on it a little bit and I was worried after all these years that he would try to shut me down, but he did not and he supported it and encouraged people to talk to me for my documentary, so I know that he was aware until the end — through friends I heard. But another thing that happened that was incredibly important was that I brought him a contract for him to sign making sure that I had copyright to the material (laughs). This might sound insane that you would even try this on Steve Jobs, but I was covering conflict and drug wars and those stuff like forest fires and I have risked my life through all kinds of traumatic situations. So on one hand, Steve was terrifying despite all my experience. But on the other hand, it wasn’t that ideal compared to somebody pulling a gun on you. So I felt like fighting for my rights, so I brought him this brief contract and he signed it! The attorney for Steve was astounded that Steve agreed to it.”
“I think he knew my heart was in the right place. I was just trying to get to the core of who these people were and their motivation for what they did. And remember, I had no background in science or math, so I was trying to be an artist before I become a journalist and my core interest is about human behavior and culture.”
We’ve heard many stories that Steve could be ruthless to the people he worked with. How true are those stories based on your observations?
[pullquote][Steve] was a motivating leader somehow, whether it’s through terror or with love. I think he would use praise, he would use threats, he would use whatever was he felt was right to get people to do what he wanted.[/pullquote]“It’s hard to explain. People boil things down to headlines, and Steve was full of grey areas and contradictions. He can be incredibly sweet, but when I think about — I don’t wanna condone bad behavior — but it seems to me that, in general terms for Steve, he was so passionate about the goal and trying to invent something impossible that everyone had to be on this mission to Mars, and if you weren’t on the mission you didn’t need to be here. It was really a focused approach, so it wasn’t about me or you or hard feelings or anyone. It was about the thing and making the thing better.
He wasn’t a positive manager a lot of the times, but he was a great teacher. He would take people and spend a huge amount of time, very patiently teaching them. So he was all of the above. He was sometimes ruthless, sometimes really sweet, sometimes really kind and other times really tough. But it was in the service of making the thing, this impossible thing, better. I think he had an incredible talent to see through to the core of what motivated people. He could see your personality, he could see your vulnerabilities and he would use whatever he had to manipulate you to get you to do what he wanted.
When you think about making these things that hasn’t been made before, you know when the next computer came out it had the six or seven new technologies that weren’t in commercial products yet, WI-FI being one of them, right? They were late to market. It was overpriced but he wanted to put a mainframe in a one-foot cube. I mean, it was hard. He told me he wanted some kid to be able to cure cancer when I asked him what’s he gonna do with it.
So that goes to show that even if you get really smart people, that doesn’t guarantee you success. A lot of those super smart people will tell you it can’t be done, because in their experience, from all they’ve learned, it’s not possible. That’s what’s happening. So you’re in a room with Steve and someone is telling him, ‘Well, this is gonna cost too much and this can’t be done,’ and you wanna know what his response was? He would start screaming, ‘This is stupid! This is the stupidest idea ever!’ and he would just beat them with the club until they did what he wanted and rise above their own talent, and people would finally figure it out. They would go back to the drawing board. So he was a motivating leader somehow, whether it’s through terror or with love. I think he would use praise, he would use threats, he would use whatever was he felt was right to get people to do what he wanted. Yes, people have scars. Were people damaged? Yes, yes they were, but you know, when they were inventing the atom bomb, which didn’t work out so well — when you think about any great invention or any great innovation there’s gonna be price to pay for everybody. So you better not get into it unless you’re ready to pay that price! Now, on the flipside, you can change these minds. He wanted people to stand up to him, he wanted people with character. I’m not condoning bad behavior. Yes, he could cross the line. He could be really rough, and I don’t think that was right and I was uncomfortable with that, and I experienced that myself, but I’m looking at it now in the lens of what he got accomplished and what it takes to really get something amazing done. On the other hand, you go over to Adobe and they did all kinds of breakthroughs and they did it in a kind and thoughtful management style. So you know, you have different ways to do things, but that’s how he did it.”
Tell us a little bit about your book, “Fearless Genius,” and how it will help millennial entrepreneurs.
“Well, I think it’s an imperfect record of human time in history, when there were probably more innovations in 15 years. It was a more compressed time of great innovation that had happened previously. Most of the great errors of innovation happened over 30 years or so, and I think in history that was an unusual 15 years, 20 years.
And it’s an imperfect record, but I think you get a sense of the passion and sacrifice and the ideals that I think control these people and is the hallmark of successful innovation. I would encourage people to go beyond my book and will take my book as a starting point for their first entry to that era. I would ask them to go beyond that and try to find out more about what really happened in those days, what really happened to Netscape, what really happened to Apple, and there’s got to be lessons there for any entrepreneur in terms of starting a company and building a company for the long term. It really starts out with, what is your passion? What are you really really excited about doing? The other themes in my book that I’m exploring is trying to understand, besides what drives great innovation, is issues around diversity and why that matters, and education and why or why not we are bringing enough engineers and then the whole long-term investment platform thing. A lot of those things kind of tie in with where the culture is, and I think if you look at the global world view than just the usual tech sites you get answers to those questions.”