How Ross Perot changed the course of Apple history

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Ross Perot pictured in 1986, the year he first met Steve Jobs.
Ross Perot pictured in 1986, the year he first met Steve Jobs.
Photo: Allen Warren/Wikipedia CC

American business magnate and politician Ross Perot died yesterday at the age of 89.

However, while the world probably remembers Perot best for his 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, Perot also played a crucial role in Apple history. Here’s how.

NeXT’s most important investor

After Steve Jobs was booted out of Apple in the mid-1980s, he invested his own money in starting a new company called NeXT. NeXT was profiled in a 1986 TV series, entitled The Entrepreneurs. While the NeXT episode didn’t set the world on fire (the New York Times described it as being about “heroes of American capitalism” sitting around and taking endless meetings), it did win Jobs an important investor.

Ross Perot was then a 56-year-old businessman. He had started out his career at IBM, before founding his own data processing company, Electronic Data Systems, which made him rich. Perot saw the episode of The Entrepreneurs, featuring Jobs. He reportedly phoned Steve and told him, “If you ever need an investor, call me.” Jobs then gave Perot a tour of NeXT’s factory in Fremont, California, where he planned to build the computer.

Perot liked the idea of building computers in the U.S. and thought that NeXT could make this happen. Notably, a few years before, he had missed out on investing in Microsoft. While Bill Gates and Perot told different versions of the story, there were definitely conversations about Perot purchasing the company. They never came to anything and Perot missed out on a massive deal.

Picking the jockeys

Perot initially invested $20 million in NeXT in exchange for 16% of the company. This was massively overvaluing NeXT. It also helped save Jobs’ bacon. While he had a sizable personal fortune, Jobs couldn’t afford to endlessly bankroll a company that was burning through cash.

Jobs managed to impress many people in his life. Perot bought, well and truly, into the myth of Steve Jobs. Speaking at the National Press Club a few years after his NeXT investment, Perot talked warmly about Jobs. Retelling the Apple origin story (in a way that cut out the contribution of Steve Wozniak), Perot described Jobs as:

“a young man, so bright they let him sit in the engineering classes at Stanford in high school, so poor he couldn’t afford to go to college – working in his garage at night, playing with computers chips, which was his hobby, his dad came in one day, who – his dad looks like a character out of a Norman Rockwell painting – and said, ‘Steve, either make something you can sell or go get a job.’ Sixty days later, in a wooden box that his dad made for him, the first Apple computer was created. And this high school graduate literally changed the world.”

Perot’s faith in NeXT helped the company pick up further investments. Ultimately, NeXT was a flop. Its computers never sold like Jobs or Perot had thought. But it was an immensely significant part of Jobs’ life. He learned skills at NeXT which helped transform him into the CEO who later turned Apple around. It was also at NeXT that Jobs oversaw the development of an OS which he later sold to Apple. Without Perot’s investment and support, there’s a chance that none of this ever happens.

And that’s how Ross Perot played a crucial role in Apple history.