Fortune Journalist Shares Stories About Steve Jobs: Fixing AOL, Toy Story, and Health Issues | Cult of Mac

Fortune Journalist Shares Stories About Steve Jobs: Fixing AOL, Toy Story, and Health Issues



Brent Schlender has worked for a number of publications over the years, and has served in positions like lead technology reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Now serving as a contributor for Fortune, Schlender has covered Steve Jobs for the past 25 years on numerous occasions.

In a recent article on Fortune, Schlender tells of “chapters in his [Jobs’s] story I was never able to tell, either because they would violate a personal confidence or because what I had learned didn’t really fit into a typical analytical business story.”

Some particularly fond memories of Jobs are included in Schlender’s anecdotes, including Jobs’s plan to ‘fix’ AOL in 2003, the time he previewed the original Toy Story to a group of kids, and when he decided to take extended medical leave from Apple in 2008.

Jobs had an idea to ‘fix’ AOL in 2003:

In one instance, John Huey, who is now Time Inc.’s editor-in-chief, joined me at Apple headquarters in Cupertino in 2003, not for a story interview but instead to get Jobs’ advice on how he would clean up our struggling parent company, then known as AOL Time Warner. Steve looked at us incredulously and muttered something about what a waste of time it was to look in the rearview mirror. He then proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes methodically explaining in excruciating detail why AOL’s business model of being a dial-up Internet service was a complete mismatch and had served only to slow down Time Warner’s build-out of its much more promising broadband business. Then he waxed acerbic about why AOL’s “postcard production values” for its online content were so “hopelessly last-century.”

“Well, I guess that means you don’t think it could be fixed,” Huey said. To which Jobs replied, “I didn’t say that. I know how you could fix it. I’m just not interested.” Then, inexplicably, he went to the whiteboard and spent 15 more minutes mapping out a strategy right off the top of his head to turn AOL into something more like a media company.

“That’s how I’d do it,” he concluded, snapping the cap back on the dry marker with a flourish. “But like I said, I’m not interested.”

Jobs gave the first preview showing of the original Toy Story movie to a group of kids:

The most enlightening meetings often were ones that Steve himself initiated, usually with a telephone call to my home out of the blue and always with a very specific purpose in mind. One Saturday morning in May 1995, he rang up and asked me to grab my two grade-school-age daughters and bring them over to his house in Palo Alto right away. “I’m watching Reed this morning, and I’ve got something cool to show them” was all he would say.

When we arrived, 3-year-old Reed Jobs greeted us at the kitchen door, wrapped in blue and red silk scarves and screeching, “I’m a witch!!!”

After making some popcorn and getting the kids some juice, Steve led us into the den and slapped a VHS cassette into the player. The music swelled and a stream of illegible, pencil-drawn storyboards simulating the opening credits of a movie flashed on the screen. And then, suddenly, an entirely new kind of animation burst forth in full color. All three kids were spellbound, even though the full animation had been completed for only half the movie. The soundtrack was finished, but entire scenes were only partially animated or in storyboard form.

It turned out that this was an early cut of Toy Story, the movie that would put Pixar on the map after its premiere six months later. The board of directors hadn’t even seen this much of it. But this was market research, Steve Jobs-style. When it was over, he asked my kids (not me), “Whaddya think? Is it as good as Pocahontas?” Greta and Fernanda nodded vigorously. “Well, then, is it as good as The Lion King?” Fernanda replied, “I won’t be able to make up my mind until I see Toy Story five or six more times.”

Jobs finally realized that he had to “get to the bottom” of his health problems in 2008:

I started planning a book project I wanted to call Founders Keepers that would attempt to explain why certain entrepreneurs seem to be able to grow as business leaders even faster than the companies they create. Steve consented to be one of the primary subjects of the book, along with Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Andy Grove. All of them had agreed to meet with me for a roundtable discussion in Silicon Valley in late November 2008.

One week before the meeting, Steve called me at home. “I really hate to do this, Brent, but I have to back out of our meeting.” Maybe it was just my new hearing aid, but he sounded uncharacteristically subdued. “I trust you not to say anything to anyone about why I’m canceling on you, but I’ll tell you the truth. I really have to get to the bottom of my health problems once and for all. I’m in no condition to meet with anyone and am going to go on an extended medical leave after Thanksgiving.” Three weeks later he received a liver transplant. We spoke only a few times after that. And three years later he was gone.

Read Brent Schlender’s full article on Fortune for more on Steve Jobs.


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