Originally posted on Forbes.com
I was a young CEO and I needed answers. Steve Jobs had them. There was only one thing to do.
So I sent a FedEx letter.
Then I sent another.
Then I started calling.
Then I sent another FedEx, and called some more. Finally, after 7 FedExs and 12 phone calls, Steve’s assistant said he wanted to talk with me.
“You keep sending FedExs and calling. So let’s end it. What do you want?” Steve said, with his characteristic charm.
“Five minutes of your time. I really admire your accomplishments and as a young CEO I have a few questions no one else can answer.”
“Bring a timer.”
“I will. Oh—and thanks.”
He had already hung up.
My surface agenda was to get 5 minutes of advice, watch how Steve’s mind worked, bask in his brilliance, then have a breakthrough.
My subterranean agenda was to find hope again. It was the early 1990’s and I’d left my engineering post at Microsoft. I was depressed and wanted to know why we weren’t really changing the world as fast and as well as we could. Windows hadn’t deeply changed people, hadn’t deeply helped. Wasn’t technology supposed to do that? All I saw were the limitations of software, hardware, peripherals. I’d left feeling frustrated after years of 12-14 hour days pounding code that refused to become bug free.
Remember those chunky white metal kitchen timers from your childhood? The ones with the dial and the ticka ticka ticka sound and the “bing!” ringer? Two weeks later, timer in hand, I shaked Steve’s hand and set the dial for 5 minutes. We’re at a dark conference table at NeXT. He is slouching at the head of the table, to my right. Ticka ticka ticka.
I won’t bore you with the questions I asked, they were mere prompts to get Steve talking. What I do want you to know is that during this conversation, which was almost 18 years ago, Steve shared his vision of the future.
And it was glorious. He described a world where our computers were so seamlessly integrated into our lives that everything we needed was easily accessible. He described the iPod, iPad, iPhone nearly 2 decades before they hit the market. I watched how his brain moved—without limitation—from what might enhance a customer’s life, to what that would mean to them and how they would benefit, to how this would change the world.
He didn’t question that whatever he envisioned could, and would, be created. He didn’t agonize over whether current limitations would hold him back.
I could feel my brain expanding, it felt so big around Steve, so open and limitless. I was tracking him, following his twists, turns, expansions. I felt so smart around him, and it was glorious and freeing and…
Ticka ticka ticka ding! My five minutes was up. I rose to leave, bowing a little as I backed away.
“I’m not done with you yet. Sit down.”
And zoom! We were back in brain expansion mode immediately, flying into the future, the wind blowing our hair, everything possible, everything important. And we needed to create it. It was our destiny.
Forty five minutes later Steve released me. Sitting in my overheated car in the sunny Redwood City parking lot, my head bursting with the remarkable, complex, complete vision of Steve Jobs in my head, I made a commitment.
I would no longer see barricades. Stumbling blocks would now be seen as stepping stones to something better, or something to crawl over or walk around. Previous limitations would now be a mere triviality, at worst a slight inconvenience. There were insanely great things to create and we were here to create them and that’s all there was to it. All thoughts to the contrary were irrelevant.
That’s how I still live today.
Want to meet your “Steve”?
1) Find out what causes they care about. Write a ½ to 1 page genuine letter about their specific accomplishments you admire. Offer five hours donation of your time to their favorite non-profit for five minutes of their time (request a meeting in person versus via phone).
2) Send your letter via FedEx. Call to ensure it was received and bond with their Executive Assistant. Only call first thing in AM or last thing in PM. They’re more likely to answer then.
3) Repeat step 2 until you get a meeting. If for some reason this doesn’t work, give the letter to them by hand at an event they are speaking at. Then repeat step 2 until you get a meeting.
In 30 years in business the approach above has always worked for me. The key is the letter. Be authentic, heartfelt, compelling. Care. Make it a work of art.
Years later after my father had died from pancreatic cancer and my uncle Ed then had it, my mother asked me to call Steve’s office to compare his treatment to my uncle’s—perhaps we could improve Ed’s odds. The woman who answered in Steve’s office hesitated for a moment, looking up my name, I suppose. Then we talked through Steve’s versus Ed’s situation. Unfortunately the news wasn’t good—Ed’s cancer was more aggressive. He died six months later.
Thanks Steve for bringing back my faith in technology, in innovation, in possibility.
Oh—and sorry I stalked you.