A focus on the stuff that matters most
This tweet by Steve Case (@stevecase) struck home for me, because in the aftermath of Steve Jobs' death I've been thinking a lot about O'Reilly, wanting to make sure that we streamline and focus on the stuff that matters most.
Here's the money quote from the article Case mentioned:
"My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products," Jobs told [biographer Walter] Isaacson. "[T]he products, not the profits, were the motivation. [John] Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It's a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything."
Jobs went on to describe the legacy he hoped he would leave behind, "a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now."
"That's what Walt Disney did," said Jobs, "and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That's what I want Apple to be."
All of our greatest work at O'Reilly has been driven by passion and idealism. That includes our early forays into publishing, when we were a documentation consulting company to pay the bills but wrote documentation on the side for programs we used that didn't have any good manuals. It was those manuals, on topics that no existing tech publisher thought were important, that turned us into a tech publisher "who came out of nowhere."
In the early days of the web, we were so excited about it that Dale Dougherty wanted to create an online magazine to celebrate the people behind it. That morphed into GNN, the Global Network Navigator, the web's first portal and first commercial ad-supported site.
In the mid-'90s, realizing that no one was talking about the programs that were behind all our most successful books, I brought together a collection of free software leaders (many of whom had never met each other) to brainstorm a common story. That story redefined free software as open source, and the world hasn't been the same since. It also led to a new business for O'Reilly, as we launched our conference business to help bring visibility to these projects, which had no company marketing behind them.
Thinking deeply about open source and the internet got me thinking big ideas about the Internet as operating system, and the shift of influence from software to network effects in data as the key to future applications. I was following people who at the time seemed "crazy" — but they were just living in a future that hadn't arrived for the rest of the world yet. It was around this time that I formulated our company mission of "changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators."
In 2003, in the dark days after the dotcom bust, our company goal for the year was to reignite enthusiasm in the computer business. Two outcomes of that effort did just that: Sara Winge's creation of Foo Camp spawned a worldwide, grassroots movement of self-organizing "unconferences," and our Web 2.0 Conference told a big story about where the Internet was going and what distinguished the companies that survived the dotcom bust from those that preceded it.
In 2005, seeing the passion that was driving garage inventors to a new kind of hardware innovation, Dale once again wanted to launch a magazine to celebrate the passionate people behind the movement. This time, it was "Make:", and a year later, we launched Maker Faire as a companion event. Around 150,000 people attended Maker Faires last year, and the next generation of startups is emerging from the ferment of the movement that Dale named.
Meanwhile, through those dark years after the dotcom bust, we also did a lot of publishing just to keep the company afloat. (With a small data science team at O'Reilly, we built a set of analytical tools that helped us understand the untapped opportunities in computer book publishing. We realized that we were playing in only about 2/5 of the market; moving into other areas that we had never been drawn to helped pay the bills, but never sparked the kind of creativity as the areas that we'd found by following our passion.)
It was at this time that I formulated an image that I've used many times since: profit in a business is like gas in a car. You don't want to run out of gas, but neither do you want to think that your road trip is a tour of gas stations.
When I think about the great persistence of Steve Jobs, there's a lesson for all of us in it.
What's so great about the Apple story is that Steve ended up making enormous amounts of money without making it a primary goal of the company. (Ditto Larry and Sergey at Google.) Contrast that with the folks who brought us the 2008 financial crisis, who were focused only on making money for themselves, while taking advantage of others in the process.
Making money through true value creation driven by the desire to make great things that last, and make the world a better place — that's the heart of what is best in capitalism. (See also the wonderful HBR blog post, "Steve Jobs and the Purpose of the Corporation." I also got a lot of perspective on this topic from Leander Kahney's book, "Inside Steve's Brain.")