75 years young, John Sculley is rearing to go.

12 May,2014


By Moinak Mitra


Youth is effervescent. Bubbling over that target audience, American businessman, entrepreneur and investor in high-tech startups John Sculley, who is more famously known to have ‘fired’ Steve Jobs from Apple in the mid-80s, gushes with renewed enthusiasm. After trouncing Coca-Cola as PepsiCo’s youngest CEO in the now-famous ‘Cola Wars’ by targeting the youth, Sculley amped up the youth quotient in Apple.


In his latest avatar, at 75, he is now set to launch his ‘youth-centric’ range of Obi mobile phones in the Indian market as a test case, to be taken to other emerging markets upon the India experience. While reams have been written on how Jobs invited Sculley to Apple in the early 80s with the bait ‘Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or, do you want to come with me and change the world?’ and their eventual fallout over the Macintosh versus Apple II row, Sculley’s management mantra is pivoted on Jobs’ ‘zoom-in, zoomout’ approach.




Sculley had his fi rst brush with the Indian market in 1991 when Ratan Tata came to visit him with a delegation of Indian business leaders in his California home. When he left Apple in 1993, Tata visited him in his Connecticut home as well. “I’ve been coming to India ever since 1996 and have seen the country when there was hardly any electricity,” says Sculley. Apart from Tata, he counts Nandan Nilekani and Pradeep Kar of Microland among his close friends. He ‘s driven several thousands of kilometers in the hinterland with Kar and his wife, Kalpana. From a business standpoint, it is India’s emerging middle class and the frugal Asian business model that attracts him.


Zoom in, zoom out

The duo met for the first time in 1982 and took five months in getting to know each other over long sessions at Jobs’ triplex apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. Later, upon signing up with Apple, Sculley and Jobs would spend time walking around the Stanford campus, Apple campus and high-tech citadels on the West Coast. “So Steve would say, ‘Let’s zoom out’.


That meant the big picture. He said, ‘When I was in Reed College, I learnt about calligraphy and then I got this opportunity to visit Xerox Park, Palo Alto research center and I saw what they were doing with the Star and the Alto.’ These were the first experimental media computers. He said, ‘If I could commercialize something and make it really easy to use and very inexpensive and I could connect the dots with calligraphy that I fell in love with at Reed, and put that together with a media computer, that would change the world'”, narrates Sculley.


While the zoom-out principle encapsulated linkages that wove past, present and future into a missionary zeal for novelty, zoom-in was all about simplification. The most important decisions were not about what you put in, but what you leave out. Sculley would hang around with Jobs at the Mac building at midnight because all the engineers worked late. “An engineer would just come and say Steve, look, I just simplified this function to four steps. Steve would say, it’s not good enough. He said, Steve, you just didn’t look at it.


Steve would say I don’t care. Come back when you have it in three steps,” says Sculley. One look at Apple today, whether it is iPod, iPhone, iPad—it is zoom-in, zoom-out in motion. Sculley believes Apple can only be understood correctly as a systems design firm. “It’s not a technology company. Most of the technology comes from other people. It’s a series of choices. When Steve was alive, one person made all the choices. That’s how you get a product like iPad, iPhone, iTunes, AppStore. It’s zoom in, zoom out.”


Though he regrets the fallout with Jobs, the septuagenarian has surely imbibed the bulwark of his business philosophy from the man who saw the future. “It was my mistake not understanding back in those days how important the founder is in Silicon Valley as the most innovative companies are really the ones with founders at the helm, not professional managers,” says Sculley, dishing out sterling examples from Jeff Bezos (Amazon) to Jack Ma (Alibaba), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) to Larry Page (Google).


Failures propel greatness

It is his admission to mistakes that sets him apart. He confesses that at Apple, he made the mistake of not going with the Intel processor and Apple really lost out in the PC revolution in the 90s as Intel became the heart of every PC ecosystem. “I even failed to read Apple Newton’s (PDA) prowess, which was 15 years ahead of itself, and would become an inspiration of things to come, like the worldwide web and digital cellphones,” he says. Failure is looked upon as valuable experience in Silicon Valley and as startups fail, founders get asked about their learning, unlike in India. “You don’t have a culture that gives permission to fail, while we do,” says Sculley, pointing out that despite the IITs, India has zero success stories in high-tech.


The Cola Wars

Sculley would know better than most that good things crop out of failure. Back in the 70s, when Coca-Cola outsold Pepsi by 5:1 in the US, he tried a bevy of tricks to upset that, including imitating the hour-glass shaped Coke bottle, but every time met with dejection as it infringed on the Coke design. Armed with a mathematical and industrial design background, Sculley then ran a market research with a 550-home sample, wherein each week, Pepsi would deliver a certain quantity of soft drinks, including the competition, to these homes. After nine weeks, a very interesting pattern emerged—no matter how much was delivered to the household the week before, the household inventory was always empty the next week.


“We realized that we were solving the wrong problem and shouldn’t be designing a little bottle with Coke’s little bottle,” he reminisces. In fact, that was the started the development of the world’s first 2-liter plastic bottle. This coincided with the rise of mass merchandisers in the US, like Walgreens, K-Mart and a certain Wal-Mart.


“I remember going to meet Sam Walton to convince him to sell soft drinks as he said he would not sell soft drinks as bottles break and get messy,” he recalls. So Sculley took along with him the newly minted 2-litre PET bottle and held it out to Walton. But before Walton could grasp it, Sculley let it go. “Everyone gasped as it hit the floor and bounced.” With the buy-in, Sculley designed an entire line of merchandising equipment for plastic bottles and did the first off-shelf displays and visi-coolers and new shelf design.


Again, to get one up on Coke, Sculley and his team at Pepsi co-developed with McKinsey & Co something called the universal product code, which came to be known as the bar code. In those days, the large chain stores had no idea how much soft drinks they were selling as they only had information about the products sold to the warehouses. Pepsi became the first consumer product to have a bar code.


Bermuda Triangle

Sculley’s 15 years at PepsiCo was marked by marketing-led innovations that made him the darling of corporate America with a call to ride the crest of the tech wave as CEO of Apple Computers in 1983. His siblings are equally illustrious. Arthur Sculley was Managing Director of private bank JP Morgan until 1995 and David Sculley was President of HJ Heinz & Co’s domestic ops until 1989.


Through their family investment office, Sculley Brothers, John and his brothers are investing in smart tech and healthcare. “We’re extremely close and we’ve never had an argument our entire lives,” says Sculley. Perhaps, their work ethic has to do with the trio’s wonder years in Bermuda and New York, mostly raised by their grandparents as their folks passed away when they were young. Or, maybe, it has to do with Sculley’s grandpa, a marine engineer, who co-invented the first submarine at Liverpool


Lesson in mentoring

That said, Sculley increasingly sees himself as a mentor and rues the fact that he didn’t have one in his days. He is penning a book on mentorship slated to be out later this year. “The mentor is like a coach for an athlete. I like being a mentor because I can share my experience, and what you discover with more experience is that the best lessons are from your failures, not from your successes.”


As our conversation starts winding up, Sculley has this unmistakable twinkle in his eyes and a surprise up his sleeve. In a soft stutter he says the world will be out of wireless spectrum when the next 2 billion people get smartphones, and every telco knows it. So he’s worked with Steve Perlman, his colleague at Apple, who introduced the world to Quicktime and Web TV and became Prez at Microsoft, to co-develop a solution to that problem for over a decade. “We’re planning to commercialize it now and it will be what we call a tubes-totransistor moment, or a moonshot,” he says, without batting an eyelid, harking back to a youth well spent, journeying along the cusp of talent and innovation.


Source:The Economic Times

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