It was 1983, I was 22, just starting my first business, a publishing company, after writing and printing How to College, written my senior year with two other Stanford students, Eugene Reardon and Ed Wyatt. We had no idea what we were doing. We were all middle-class kids, recently graduated into a job market with 10.8% unemployment. Two of us were English majors, one was an Econ major. We all figured we’d go to grad school. I was bound for law school. Ed wanted to be a teacher. Eugene was planning on business school.
We had all heard of Steve Jobs, but this was a few years before the Macintosh, so, though he was an icon, he wasn’t yet an ICON, a cultural touchstone by whom all tech icons would be measured. Apple was an interesting little tech startup, but so were Compaq and Atari. In those days, the hot company was Commodore.
But Eugene saw a poster on the Stanford Business School announcing a talk by Steve Jobs and we figured it couldn’t hurt to go. Maybe we’d learn something about running a business. We showed up and stood at the back. That classroom held maybe 100 people. The crowd was large, standing room only, but still totaled maybe only 120 students.
Jobs was late. He wore jeans, an untucked shirt, and no shoes. The no shoes really stood out, because in those days, Donald Trump and “Dress for Success” were beginning to rear their ugly heads. It was the beginning of Reaganism and Yuppies. Jobs just didn’t seem to care at all how he looked.
I don’t remember too much about what he said. He mentioned that he was hungover and really didn’t have any advice to give, other than we were only at the beginning of the technology boom, and the key to everything was getting computers in schools. His main message was that Congress should allow a tax break for every computer put in school. Computers were so important that they should essentially be free for students.
Though Jobs stressed “computers,” these were the days before IBM clones had hit and the market had tilted toward PCs, so he was really talking about Apple ][s going into schools. Eugene and I were struck about how Jobs never mentioned his own company or his own product. He elevated the conversation to the computing industry helping education. That big picture thinking of his struck me as unique. It was almost as if he didn’t really care whether he promoted his product. He was more about framing the problem and making his product the logical solution.
Jobs would perfect this technique over the years until it reached its apotheosis with the introduction of the iPhone. I had never seen a product spokesman fail to promote his own product before.
Jobs’ talk just kind of ended. There was no formal conclusion. Just a few questions and a “thanks, everyone.” The low-key nature of it struck me. I had never experienced a business presentation seem less business-y
After the talk, Eugene and I chatted about it. We hadn’t really learned all that much that would apply to our own business. But for the first time, I thought that I’d rather be that guy in jeans and stocki feet than a corporate lawyer in a three-piece suit. I hadn’t really seen many examples of someone being casual, smart, and successful before. For the first time, I thought that I would commit to our little experimental business, which, to be honest, was really designed to delay grad school for all of us. For the first time, I thought, “this might work out.”
40 years later, I never made it to law school. Instead, I’m on my fifth business. Today, as I remember Steve Jobs, I’m wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and socks. No shoes.