Ah, 1987. The year we were introduced to Rick Astley and Photoshop, the year Elliot Page was born and Andy Warhol died. And the year that John Sculley, CEO of Apple Computers, published his memoir, Odyssey.
1987 was a good year for Sculley. For it looked like the crazy bet he’d made had paid off. The wunderkind of Pepsi had ridden the success of the Pepsi Challenge like a rocket to business superstardom and then jumped ship when Steve Jobs famously asked him if he “wanted to sell sugared water for the rest of his life, or if he wanted to come with him and change the world”.
And to understand what an audacious bet that was, one has to remind oneself of just what Sculley had accomplished – and accomplished quickly – at Pepsi. He had, if not actually dethroned the king, certainly made uneasy the head that wore the sugared water crown. He had been clever, ruthless, unrelenting, and innovative. He had used research, for example, to discover an opportunity to innovate packaging – and then worked with Dupont to create the 2-liter bottle. He had helped skyrocket Pepsi’s spend on TV commercials from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to take advantage of the media habits of a new generation of Americans. And he had been central to the creation, implementation and success of the Pepsi Challenge.
Now, for those of you who don’t know about the Pepsi Challenge, it was simply a series of commercials that showed average Americans doing blind taste tests between two sodas and picking, over and over again, Pepsi. Sculley will tell you they had research that said people really did prefer it. Cynics will tell you people chose it blind because it was sweeter. But whatever the actual science, the idea of real Americans, in all their mid-1970s down home-honesty, innocently turning their backs on a national institution, was like a bomb in American culture.
You could see why Jobs would dig that.
So when Scully came to Apple, it actually seemed to make sense. Pepsi had gone after Coke, and IBM was the Coke of computers. Pepsi had done it by appealing to an entirely new generation of consumers, and Apple needed a new generation to similarly redefine their category. And for the first couple of years – through to when Odyssey was written – it was working. Well, sort of. The problems that were blips during the years Sculley covers here were not only what led to Jobs’ departure in 1985, but to Sculley’s own in 1993.
And because we know that so much of the Apple story comes well after this book, from Sculley’s removal to Jobs’ return and eventual elevation to the right hand of Einstein and Edison in the popular culture, to Apple’s business ascendency (2021 market capitalization: $2.08 trillion – larger than the GDP of all but 7 countries), reviewing it today rather feels like reviewing Romeo and Juliette at the end of Act 1. “I’ll bet, those two crazy kids who just met are gonna fall love before this whole thing is over, aren’t they? I sure love me a rom-com…”
But what is useful about looking at this book today is the very fact of it. Odyssey was one of the first of the “CEO-memoirs” that have since become a staple of the culture. Kicked off in 1984 by Lee Iaccoca’s national bestseller autobiography, there’s nary a CEO, CMO or “thought leader” who doesn’t think that the world is just itching for the opportunity to read their self-aggrandizing platitudes about how they made whatever incremental gains they eked out in whatever marginal industry that you’ve never heard of that they happen to inhabit.
And they’re not wrong. If they were, we wouldn’t be inundated by them here. Nor would we have reviewed so many of them.
But why? Not “why do they write them” – we know why they write them; for personal profit, they think (though not often). Or for personal promotion (so much easier to get the next big gig if you’ve got a book or two under your belt). Or for ego (well, duh). And probably some small few because they actually want to share what they’ve figured out with others.
But why do we read them? Why do we care? Because invariably the insights they had are not transferable, no matter how blindingly smart they were in their time. Iaccoca sold Mustangs to 21 year-olds in 1966 – is that what you’re selling and to whom? Sculley sold full calorie soda to a nation whose median age was under 29 – today it’s almost 40 so clearly that’s not your problem either.
So why do we read them? I think for two simple reasons.
First, because they provide patterns and we are inveterate pattern seekers, because patterns can help us make sense of what seems like chaos. The problem is, we treat these patterns like instruction manuals, when instead we should look to them for insight. Iacocca saw where the money was (Baby Boomers), so he followed it. Sculley saw where the eyeballs were (television), so he followed them. That’s smart. Trying to jam Ford Mustangs down the throats of 20 year-olds in 2021, or pushing “challenges” on network TV today? Not so much.
And second, because we crave inspiration. And because amidst the posturing and preening, the relentless use of the nominative personal pronoun, the hollow praise of teammates long consigned to the dustbin of history, the books celebrate a thing the writer figured out that others did not. And that gives us hope that that sort of thing is still possible. That all the fun, all the excitement, all the passion, all the innovation, has not been hoovered out of this business with the gut-wrenching efficiency of an imploding black hole. It’s still possible, these books whisper to us, despite the egotism and arrogance of their authors. It’s still possible.
And it might be possible by you.