Steve Jobs, Pixar and Disney

I’ve just finished reading The Ride of a Lifetime by Bob Iger, the recently retired CEO of Disney. Part of his story with Disney is his relationship with Steve Jobs. Today, nine years ago in 2011, Steve Jobs passed away.

Probably the most well-known book on Steve Jobs, with its white cover, is Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. When Jobs found out he was dying he asked Isaacson to write his biography. In the book, Jobs comes across as a tyrant, bending the world to his will. He famously had a “reality distortion field”, which allowed him to see the world as he wanted to rather than the way it was. But, the Steve Jobs that co-founded Apple was not the Steve Jobs who returned to revive it.

Becoming Steve Jobs (by B Schlender and R Tetzeli), Creativity, Inc. (by Ed Catmull), and Bob Iger’s book all paint a more rounded view of Steve Jobs. You see another side of him. Becoming Steve Jobs, in particular, provides many insights into Jobs’ complexity and how he matured into the leader he became, inspiring those around him to create great products.

Although most people remember Steve Jobs for what he did at Apple, he also had a huge influence on the film industry. He funded and helped create Pixar, the company that made films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E.

The predecessor to Pixar was owned by George Lucas (of Star Wars fame). Lucasfilm sold the company, The Graphics Group, to Steve Jobs when George Lucas was short of cash. (I have a vague memory that George Lucas needed the money for a divorce settlement.)

Unlike his reputation at Apple, Steve Jobs was usually hands off at Pixar. He left the day-to-day running of the company to the two creative visionaries behind Pixar: Ed Catmull and John Lasseter.

Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc., is an excellent, readable, history of Pixar. It is also a good practical guide on management, leadership, creativity, and humility. If anyone could be said to have invented computer animation, it’s Ed Catmull. He was a computer scientist and wrote the software that would go on to be used to make Toy Story and other films. In 2019, Ed Catmull shared the Turing Award for his pioneering work on CGI (computer-generated imagery), the nearest equivalent to a Nobel Prize for Computing.

In Creativity, Inc., Catmull describes what it was like to work with Steve Jobs. Catmull found Jobs supportive, generous and a great mentor. Despite Jobs’ inexperience in the film industry, he put significant amount of his own money into Pixar when it was in financial trouble and had yet to produce a film.

One of the interesting stories in Creativity, Inc. and Becoming Steve Jobs is how Pixar came to be sold to Disney. It was fascinating to read the version from one of the two participants in this deal: Bob Iger.

Bob Iger’s book is a breezy read and you get the impression that he is a genuinely decent person. Of course, no one’s going to speak badly about themselves in their own book! But if you’re interested in leadership and Disney’s recent history, this is a fine book. The book ends with a practical chapter summarising leadership: Lessons to Lead by.

In the early days of Pixar, Steve Jobs made a deal with the then CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner. (Bob Iger was his number two but not involved in the deal.) After the success of Toy Story, the relationship between Jobs and Eisner became fractious. It became obvious to everyone that Disney needed Pixar more than Pixar needed Disney. Whilst Eisner’s first ten years had been successful, his second decade had produced nothing of note. Disney Animation was in decline. Later, when Iger became CEO, he showed the board recent popular Disney characters. They were all from Pixar.

Michael Eisner resented the fact that Steve Jobs, an upstart in the film industry, was calling the shots when trying to renegotiate the agreement between Disney and Pixar. Eventually, there was a complete breakdown in their relationship. It remained that way until Iger took over from Eisner as CEO. Before the announcement that he would be CEO, Iger called Jobs to tell him of his imminent appointment, even though the two had had no dealings with each other. Jobs was surprised by this call (and wary given the history with Eisner) and nothing more was said.

Bob Iger later arranged to see Steve Jobs on his own. They talked. Iger shared an idea with Jobs about films being available on hand-held devices one day. Jobs listened – and recognised a fellow traveller. He arranged another meeting, at which he showed Iger, to his astonishment, an early iPod. Jobs asked him if he was willing to put Disney films on the iPod. Iger replied without hesitation (and without an army of lawyers), “Absolutely!” That was the beginning of a relationship that lasted until Jobs died. True to his word, when the iPod Video was later launched, Iger was there, shaking hands with Jobs on stage.

One day, Iger called Jobs and said he had a crazy idea and he’d like to meet with Jobs to discuss it. Iger didn’t know that Jobs liked nothing more than crazy ideas. Jobs replied, “Why don’t you tell me now?!” Iger then asked Jobs what we thought of the idea of Disney buying Pixar! At the time, this really was crazy because Pixar were flying high and Disney’s film production was in the doldrums. Iger fully expected Jobs to dismiss the idea – and that would be the end of that. He had an itch and he wanted to scratch it. There was a long pause. Much to Iger’s surprise, Jobs replied, “That’s not as crazy as it sounds.” They arranged to explore the idea.

At the time, Steve Jobs’ second coming at Apple was in full swing. Having founded Apple with Steve Wozniak, Jobs was fired in 1985. He spent twelve years in the wilderness, where he founded NeXT and Pixar. On his return to Apple in 1997, Jobs found the company on the verge of extinction. He arranged for Apple to be rescued by an injection of funding from Microsoft (which appalled some of Apple’s fan base, who regarded Bill Gates as the devil himself). In the fourteen years before his death, Jobs transformed Apple. He introduced the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. They were revolutionary products and put Apple on the road to becoming the world’s most valuable company.

Bob Iger met Steve Jobs to discuss his crazy idea in Apple’s boardroom. On the huge whiteboard, Jobs drew a line down the middle, putting “Pros” on one side and “Cons” on the other. When they went through the reasons, there were clearly more cons than pros. Some of the cons were small but Iger was somewhat discouraged. Jobs, however, then said that sometimes a pro is so big it outweighs many cons. Jobs added that he would not sell Pixar unless Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, the driving and creative forces behind Pixar, agreed. Jobs did not want Pixar to be “Disney-fied”. Pixar had a unique culture that fed their creativity and Jobs didn’t want Disney to destroy that. A time was arranged for Iger to meet Catmull and Lasseter.

Bob Iger spent a day talking to Catmull and Lasseter, and their teams. Iger looked at what they did, how they did it and the environment in which they worked. He saw the pipeline of films being developed. He was staggered by how far Pixar were ahead of Disney. He knew that Disney’s survival depended on acquiring Pixar. He told Jobs that Pixar would remain independent under Disney and that he wanted Catmull and Lasseter to head Disney Animation to revive its fortunes. Jobs later spoke to his team and they gave him their consent to proceed with negotiating Pixar’s sale.

Steve Jobs and Bob Iger agreed a price. Iger persuaded the sceptical Disney board and Disney bought Pixar for $7.4bn. Steve Jobs became the largest single shareholder of Disney and remained a board member until he died; and Catmull and Lasseter went on to revive Disney Animation. Thereafter, Iger regularly confided in Jobs.

Not content with buying Pixar, Bob Iger, encouraged and helped by Steve Jobs, went on to buy Marvel and Lucasfilms. (21st Century Fox was bought after Jobs died.) As with Jobs and Pixar, neither owner of Marvel and Lucasfilms was thinking of selling his company. But what Bob Iger demonstrated is the power of thinking the impossible, paying attention to details, and laying the foundation for future success by building genuine relationships with people.

Like Steve Jobs (when he destroyed the successful iPod market with the iPhone), Bob Iger had the ability to look at the details, think big and disrupt his own company. These qualities were exemplified by the launch of Disney+ earlier this year. Iger’s predecessor used to say “micromanaging is underestimated”. Whilst acknowledging that micromanaging can be stultifying and give the impression that you don’t trust the people who work for you, Iger said that “great” is a collection of small things. Netflix’s CEO said of Disney+: “Over 20 years of watching different businesses – incumbents like Blockbuster and Walmart and all these companies – I’ve never seen such a good execution of the incumbent learning the new way and mastering it.”

As a testament to Bob Iger’s ability to build enduring relationships, he was one of the few people who first knew about Steve Jobs’ cancer. When Iger told his wife later, they both cried. He was one of about twenty-five people at Jobs’ burial. He hadn’t prepared any speech but when Jobs’ wife asked if anyone wanted to say something, Iger spoke. He recalled the walk on Pixar’s campus years earlier when Jobs put his arm around Iger and revealed his illness. After the burial, Jobs’ wife told Iger about the other half of that day. When Jobs came home, she asked him if he’d told Iger. Jobs said he had. She asked, “Can we trust him?” Jobs replied, “I love that guy.”

When Jobs died, he was probably at the height of his creative powers. Apple were going from strength to strength. We don’t know what he would have achieved – or maybe he achieved what he did because he knew his time was limited. Even as he was dying, he had the generosity of spirit to advise Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, not to try to second guess him after he died. Disney had been crippled for many years because employees wondered, after their founder died, “What would Walt [Disney] do?”. Jobs wanted to liberate his successor from this impossible question. So he told Tim Cook, “Never ask what I would do. Just do what’s right.

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