Was Steve Jobs Wrong About Great Products?


Steve Jobs famously said, ‘If you keep your eye on the profit, you’re going to skimp on the product. But if you focus on making really great products, then the profits will follow.’ Jobs is one of the true business visionaries of his generation, and this quote underscores why he is held in such esteem. In his Zen-like way, Jobs reminds us that if we focus on the journey, then the destination will take care of itself. And yet, for all of his vision, Jobs sounds a bit shortsighted.

Ephemeral products = ephemeral profits

When I bought my iPhone two years ago, it was a thing of beauty that literally transformed my life. Today, however, I’ve grown tired of that same phone which is now scratched, slow and sometimes infuriating. This isn’t to say that my iPhone is not a great product, it’s just to say that products – even great products – are ephemeral. In many ways, Steve Jobs’ zealous focus on products represents the voice of yesterday’s business leaders, and his perspective feels a bit outdated. As the next generation of business leaders emerges, I see my peers seeking to transcend physical products and material profits; I feel my generation pushing our organizations to embody something bigger, something . . . eternal? Today’s emerging business leaders seem to have grasped a fundamental truth: all great products eventually fade into history. Although a great product can drive profits in the short- and middle-term, great products alone are not the source for sustainable, long-term profit. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Great purpose = great products = great profits

Today’s generation recognizes that products are ephemeral, but values are eternal. Rather than creating product-centric organizations, I see my generation increasingly building purpose-centric organizations. The fundamental question is no longer ‘what does my company make.’ The big question is ‘why does my company exist in making the world a better place.’ While Jobs was the voice of his generation of business leaders, the next generation of business leaders is redefining Jobs’ famous quote: ‘If you keep your eye on the profit, you’re going to skimp on the purpose. But if you focus on defining meaningful purpose, then the profits will follow.’

Dan Callahan is the Founder and President of Vivisum Partners. He specializes in creating multi-phase research programs that combine quantitative, qualitative and strategic facilitation methodologies. Email Dan at dan.callahan@vivisumpartners.com