Jobs: Ashton Kutcher as the Visionary Entrepreneur

Jobs: Ashton Kutcher as the Visionary Entrepreneur

In several interviews, Ashton Kutcher has expressed his admiration for Steve Jobs who strove to be like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, the archetypal business visionary. But while the film Jobs isn’t terribly innovative or creative, it’s nonetheless a provocative testament to Steve Jobs and what he represented as an entrepreneur.

Indeed, the film looks into a time period that many overlook: his early trials and tribulations, between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, that shaped his future entrepreneurial success story. For those of us with an interest in the history of business and innovation – like myself and other researchers – the film breathes some new life into the debate: what drives entrepreneurial success?

What comes first, the opportunity or the entrepreneur?

What’s interesting about Jobs, is that it’s not just about success, it’s also about failure. In one important scene, Steve Jobs fights against the odds to put the first personal computer with graphic user interface on the market. He had a vision; he thought he saw an unexploited opportunity, yet the Lisa fails miserably.

Where entrepreneurship is concerned, academics are often asking themselves this type of question: ‘was it the chicken or the egg?’ In other words, does the entrepreneur somehow identify the opportunity and act on it? Or, does he create the opportunity by reuniting a multitude of factors? This film puts forward a strong argument in favor of a more nuanced idea, where many factors come into play to create the ideal environment for an innovation to flourish.  

A portrait of the entrepreneur as a young man

Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs comes across as a bit of a lunatic. Indeed, the film seems to support the idea that entrepreneurs, like mad scientists, are just born thinking outside the box. I don’t personally agree with this thesis, nerveless, the film takes an interesting stance on another great debate, whether entrepreneurship is a causal endeavor (i.e., I set a goal and build a plan to do it) or more something “effectual” (I act on the world, I ticker with what's around me, and new ventures emerge out of it): Steve Jobs’ success as an entrepreneur is about trial and error more so than planning ahead.

I certainly wouldn’t advise any hopeful entrepreneur emulate the behavior of Steve Jobs in this film. That said, the scenario offers a great example of effectuation in action. He’s tinkering, hacking and modifying what already exists in the world around him to find something that works. After Lisa fails, he is forced to join the Macintosh group where he can inject some of his previous tinkering ideas, which leads him to reuses the CPU that was planned for Lisa.

A big part of effectuation is surprise. This tinkering, and playing around with ideas helps him come up with surprising concepts. When he comes along with the Apple II, no one saw it coming or predicted that there was a need for a small micro computer that would be cheap, yet comprehensive with box and keyboard. He immediately sees it when his “customer” is disappointed by the raw board. In this respect, he was a true revolutionary.

An Entrepreneur is only as good as his entourage

Steve Jobs was able to build an empire from almost nothing and this film illustrates well that a lot depends on entourage: it’s not all about finances. He builds good relationships with programmers. He networks with academics at Stanford. He thinks outside the box, blending design and engineering. Most importantly, he lives within the close-knit community of the Silicon Valley: when he repeatedly calls venture capitalist Don Valentine, and his future investor Mike Markkula just “drops by” to check things out.  

These are all points of advice that I give future entrepreneurs: be aware of what can be leveraged in your environement (e.g., in France, there are many areas where we excel!), develop embedded relationships, for instance with engineers, designers, cooks, and don’t expect to be able to “buy” them when you develop your idea. Network and share ideas and stay in contact with all those that could be “engaged” in your startup, not only those that might offer funding. New media may have shrunk the world to some extent, but physical proximity is still a big bonus.

Many strategists assume that resources are THE critical ingredient. My own research takes a more nuanced look at this and shows that those start ups with little capital can actually produce amazing results, and that big funding can also lead to failure. Jobs offers us a nice example: starting with almost no start-up capital he sets his course to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time and the first to build three companies worth more than a billion dollars each.     

Further Reading:

"Quels compromis pour composer l'équipe entrepreneuriale"  published in L'Art d'Entreprendre : des Idées pour Agir
"Who Changes Course? The Role of Domain Knowledge and Novel Framing in Making Technology Changes", published in Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal
 "A framework for examining leadership in extreme contexts", published in The Leadership Quarterly

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