Sometimes the juxtaposition of two headlines can trigger an a-ha moment. Today news from the east coast shows growing protests against financial institutions as Occupy Wall Steet rolls on, while out west Apple’s visionary genius Steve Jobs has succumbed to cancer and died at 56.
Steve Jobs built a company that surpassed Exxon this year as the leader in market capitalization. His personal net wealth in 2010 was estimated over $8 billion, making him the 42nd-richest American, according to Forbes. And yet it is hard to picture frustrated activists, union leaders, or downwardly mobile members of the squeezed middle class mustering at 1 Infinity Way in Cupertino to rail against Apple’s profits, or Jobs’s greed. Why?
Simple. Steve Jobs built something awesome. And then, reliably, year in and year out, he built more awesome things. Things that made people’s lives better by tapping into their humanity, their need to be creative, their need to be connected, to share, to communicate, to be entertained and to be freed up.
These things were tangible — revolutionized desktops for students and entrepreneurs; sleek and powerful laptops for all; iPods to provide our personal soundtracks and iTunes to share those sounds; when the mobile phone market was scattered and hard to understand, the iPhone; and then, when people seemed like they could use something midsized that consolidated the e-reader trend and the passion for apps and web browsing, the iPad. You could touch them, and they would move you.
By contrast the banks and financial institutions under siege today have a hard time making the case for their contribution to society. Of course we all know that capital drives everything, and these institutions are essential to the lifeblood of the economy. After all, Apple never would have grown without financial institutions’ backing. Banks make loans and help create jobs, and they underwrite invention and progress.
But there’s a perceived, if not real, disproportion between what good they do and the hefty profits they show, as well as the rates they charge. There’s a sense in the land that these are institutions that do not create anything awesome, and then taxpayers bail them out, and still they don’t create anything awesome – or even say thank you.
And let’s face it: If there’s anything worse than a parasite, it’s an impolite parasite.
Almost every protester you talk to occupying Wall Street likely owns at least one Apple product. And you’d be hard pressed to find one who would begrudge Jobs, or Apple, their reams of cash. Double standard? No. Why? Simple. Because Steve Jobs and Apple earned it, by making the world a better place.
Steve Jobs was also polite enough—and savvy to the symbolism—to pay himself a salary of a dollar as Apple’s CEO. This says, why gild the lilly? I’ll take my earnings, but why take more?
Here’s where the Occupy Wall Street story and the legacy of Steve Jobs net out, when you put them together: Make something awesome, and be polite about it, and you are entitled to all you earn. It may sound trite, but it’s a lesson everyone in business, or business school, might do well to ponder long and hard.