Study in Contrasts

Back in 1985, when John Sculley and the Apple board basically fired [Steve] Jobs from his own company, they were disgusted that he had left billions of dollars on the table. First, unlike IBM and Microsoft, Jobs had decided against licensing the Apple operating system to other manufacturers, thus discouraging outsiders from developing software apps, which in turn limited  the brand’s appeal beyond the aforementioned cultists. And he seemed uninterested in foreign markets, or any market that required him to cleave to market tastes. He was interested only in developing better stuff, and willing to cede 90% of the market to Big Brother along the way.  “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want,” he famously asserted.

Bob Garfieldco-host of WNYC’s On The Media


John Fahey, CEO  of the National Geographic Society, has approached his job in a very different manner:


1: Who’s Afraid of Rupert Murdoch  (on News Corporation’s ownership of the National Geographic Channel)

2. NG Blogger Quits Over Shell Sponsorship  (on maintaining editorial independence)

3. Over-extended?  (on leveraging the Brand)

4. Adventures in Global Media  (on the very high cost of becoming International Geographic)

5. The Troubling Case of Uncle Milton  (on partnering with a company that gets an F from the Better Business Bureau)

6. Losing Control of Our Society’s Good Name  (on selling National Geographic’s education division to a private equity fund)

  • True, but the reason Jobs became successful in his “second coming” is because he opened up.  Pixar teamed with Disney, Apple worked with Microsoft, and the vast majority of new apps for all the i-gadgets are not made by Apple but third-party sources.  All this is different from the old, close hold Steve Jobs.

    • Point taken. But even though Jobs “opened up,” he still exercised enormous control over what got into the Apple ecosystem. Case in point: the whole approval process for iPhone apps. … I guess what I’m trying to say is: What would Apple look like today  if Steve Jobs had managed his company the way John Fahey has managed NGS? Consdier the Uncle Milton deal… or the licensing of the NG brand (coffee beans, bedroom furniture, etc) … or the Foxification of the NG Channel. To me, it’s not “Jobs-ian” at all. 

      The reason why the Steve Jobs story is so compelling to so many people is he had a long-range vision for Apple. And although he paid an enormous price (initially) for sticking to his guns, he eventually was proven right. …. Also: As Bob Garfield points out (above), Jobs was willing to leave billions of dollars on the table because he refused to hand over his operating system to a world of Dell-like (or Gateway-like) manufacturers. … Jobs was a leader. … I look at the way the National Geographic brand is getting “leveraged,” and I don’t see a similar vision. I see short-term returns but a lack of a long-range plan. I don’t think what John Fahey is doing is sustainable over the long haul. 

      I hope I’m wrong. Maybe selling the education division to Cengage is a brilliant move. Maybe National Geographic-branded air freshener will be good for the Society. But I often get the sense that John is in the process of creating a company that’s 95 percent Brand, and 10 percent product. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear one day soon that NG’s Book Division has been sold to Random House… that Conde Nast will publish Traveler… and that while the Yellow Rectangle will be emblazoned on hundreds of products around the world, very few of them will actually be produced by the National Geographic Society. 

      Now, imagine if Steve Jobs had done the same thing at Apple: Apple wristwatches… Apple coffee beans…. Apple bedroom furniture…. the iPhone name licensed & slapped on phones manufactured by Nokia… Samsung… and so forth. If Jobs had done that, Apple would have made a killing — but only for a short while. If he had done that, he would have driven his company into the ground. And if he had done that, few people would be celebrating his extraordinary company — and his extraordinary life. 

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