Ex-Apple CEO John Sculley On How Tech's Problem Child Became A Trillion Dollar Company


I once asked John Sculley how Apple became the most transformative company of our time.

He emphasized a founder-driven culture based on insatiable curiosity, fearlessness, customer-centricity and "finding your noble cause." 

Turns out the formula Sculley described is on the money. Literally. Last week, Apple became the first publicly traded U.S. company to reach $1 trillion in stock market value.

It's almost unthinkable that the Silicon Valley underdog of the 1980s (and most of the 90s) came out fighting fit despite a fair share of tumult, both in terms of leadership and product direction. Not only did Apple get back in the game, it choreographed a dizzying ascent in the past decade to become the ultimate object of (almost cult-like) consumer obsession and shareholder confidence, emerging as the epitome of a modern tech success story.

Today, a large part of Steve Jobs' words and ways is the stuff of business lore, painting a picture of a seemingly infallible visionary and creative genius. But did you know he was allegedly ousted (in his words, fired) in 1985 by Apple’s board of directors soon after the debacle of "Lisa", the first computer to boast a graphical user interface? While Jobs went on to found rival computing company NeXT, Apple seemed to stumble along, scoring more misses than hits.

When Jobs eventually returned in 1997, noone thought he was capable of turning around a company that was virtually written off. Consumer confidence was at such an all-time low that Apple’s stock slipped for the first time in 12 years soon after his return.

But 1998 gave us the iMac.

2001 brought the iPod.

And that’s when Jobs’ evolution as a product genius became evident, as he steadily transformed Apple from a computer company to the Holy Grail of consumer electronics, culminating in that epic iPhone launch in 2007.

As news of the trillion dollar valuation broke, several news outlets turned to former Apple CEO, John Sculley, for his take. In an interview with CNBC, Sculley--who at one time boosted Apple’s revenues tenfold--opined that current CEO Tim Cook, while not a product genius like Jobs, runs a brilliant business model that positions Apple so firmly as a value stock that he “doesn’t have to be on the bleeding edge of innovation.”

My take? While Cook’s commercial acumen is brilliant, ultimately his leadership would have likely not yielded such phenomenal results if the company he took over was not already on the path of exponential growth; a path it had arrived at precisely because its founder frequently walked along this “bleeding edge,” sometimes leaping off of it with tenuous results.

In my interview with Sculley back in 2015, he admitted he found this free-fall pursuit of innovation fascinating, if a little unnerving. It was something Steve Jobs thrived on and consequently intrinsic to Apple’s DNA. Sculley, who had essentially been a soldier for “corporate America” until then--driving Pepsi’s meteoric rise as CEO--admitted that when Jobs was courting him for the top job, he was both intrigued and wary about a company where the average employee age was 22 (!) Check out his insights in our interview on what it takes to build a truly transformative company, all of which are still totally relevant today!