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I'm not Steve Jobs, but I did speak to him once

March 30, 2020

I'm not Steve Jobs, but I did speak to him once

A couple of weeks ago, we introduced a new UI design to new customers. I wrote about that here: Introducing the All New Samepage User Experience

This redesign is the result of a long process of listening to our customers and prospects. As with all major changes in a product, there are bound to be people who are unhappy. One prospect took the time to write me a long letter explaining why this redesign was terrible and misguided. This wasn't a flame or angry message, but a thoughtful, candid and, heartfelt message. I figured he deserved an honest reply. For this and my next blog posting, I'll share what exactly I wrote back.

I tried out your new UX, and it honestly sucks.

First, I'll share some of the bad news in the form of a few quotes from his message. He wrote a lot of nice things too, but since this is my crave the bad news series, I'll just give you the bad, ugly and painful.

"I tried out your new UX and it honestly sucks."

"My feeling is Samepage lost its soul in this redesign."

"We are in Germany and we believe in perfecting things over time rather than totally redesigning. When you look at a Porsche today it is the refined version of the ones Dr. Porsche started with nearly 70 years ago. It is modern, but it has never lost its soul."

and

"I wish Steve Jobs was running your company... this would never have happened."

I am not Steve Jobs. But, I did speak to him once.

Dear [redacted],

Thank you very much for your thoughtful and provocative message. I really do appreciate it and want you to know I try to read and hear all the feedback from our customers. Even the negative feedback helps a lot, and I recognize the time and effort you took to write to me. I won't try to persuade you the changes we are making are correct or wonderful. Only time and the market will tell if I've made the right decision. If you will indulge me, I would like to share a few stories.

I am not Steve Jobs. But, I did speak to him once. In 1989 I was in my first year of a graduate economics program, and I managed to purchase a pre-launch NeXT computer from the Caltech computer science department (running OS version 0.9!). You might know the story, they got 100 of the first NeXT cubes. Actually, only 99 since they resold one to me! How I managed that is a different story. The unboxing was incredible, it was like discovering some advanced technology from the future when the world was awash with ugly, cookie-cutter 486 PCs.

The problem was the magneto-optical (MO) drive failed frequently. When your OS and data is all on one optical disk, that's scary. But a quick run over to Businessland and an hour or so to run 'fsck' and everything was ok. NeXT replaced the drive several times for me. Then one day, it died suddenly, and 'fsck' couldn't repair my disk. I was literally dead in the water. I found NeXT's phone number, called them, and eventually made it to Steve's assistant. She wouldn't put me through to Steve, but she gave me a fax number and suggested I write him a letter and fax it to her. She promised to make sure he saw it.

I wrote the letter that afternoon, ran out to a Kinkos, paid a few dollars to fax the one-page letter to Steve. In short, I said I absolutely love your computer, but it was making my school life impossible, and I had no idea what to do. That evening my flatmate knocked on my door and said: "Steve Jobs is on the phone." He was a bit of a prankster, I didn't believe him, so I grabbed the phone and just said "Hello" with a hint of skepticism. It was Steve. I was stunned. He apologized! And said he wanted to make it right and would be shipping out a 330MB hard drive immediately, and promised they would solve the MO drive problem. If I recall correctly, those hard drives were about $2,000. Steve just gave me $2k out of his pocket. I was speechless. A couple of months later, they discovered the polarity on the fan was wrong, and it was forcing the hot air back into the cube, not out, killing the MO drives.

It was a lesson and experience I've tried to emulate throughout my career. He always listened to and cared about his customers. He rarely gave them what they asked for, but always seemed to figure out how to give them what they want.

What's interesting about Steve is not what a genius he was, that's clear. He could see what people were going to want and then invent it. Every startup founder would give a great deal to have that kind of vision and insight, myself included. No, it's how he handled failure I find genuinely inspiring. He just never stopped fighting regardless of how big the failure. And he had a lot of them. When the Apple II was failing against the onslaught of PCs, he tried to leapfrog everyone with the Lisa. It was genius and immediate failure. The story is well known, but what's impressive is how he refused to give up. NeXT itself was a 10 year-long series of failures.

Even after returning to Apple, there was no automatic path to success. In fact, it came from the most unlikely of places, a little music player. The iPod and the candy-colored iMacs gave him enough resources to invest in a bet-the-business idea: iPhone.

I've heard it said that vision without execution is hallucination. Steve just kept refusing to give up and kept executing. People call that luck, I call it making your own luck.

We have a vision for collaboration whose foundation is the idea that content, conversations, and workflows all belong together on a beautiful page. That vision has been the soul of Samepage since we started working on the early prototypes more than 10 years ago. We've endured a lot of failures, but we're still here, still growing and still fighting. I don't know what Steve would do or say, but I'm quite certain he would be proud of our tenacity.

We had the courage to listen to our customers

I'll end with a bit of good news. Since releasing our new UI, signups and usage have increased more than 5x what they were before. Some of this is due to the Covid-19 crisis, with companies searching for solutions that will enable their people to work remotely / from home more efficiently and cost-effectively. Some is due to a major award we won recently: The 10 most innovative workplace companies of 2020

But a lot is due to the fact we had the courage to listen to our customers, learn the lessons, and pivot in a better direction

Sure, who wouldn't want Steve running their company? I'd be crazy if said I didn't. I'm definitely convinced we made the right decision, and I am confident Steve would be proud.

Scott R. Schreiman
CEO & Founder