Steve Jobs, Secret Sauce, and Execution

September 2, 2011

1:00 pm

Lightning in a bottle is a rare mixture of secret sauce and execution.  What is Apple’s secret sauce? How about Google’s or Facebook’s? These companies are evolutionary, not revolutionary.  Apple, with its iconic Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad products, is the epitome of execution over secret sauce.  Innovation and proprietary IP has not led to the rise of Apple as much as perfecting existing technology through design aesthetics, ecosystem,  and ease-of-use.

If you could bottle a human and call them secret sauce,  Steve Jobs is candidate #1 for bottle-hood.  I can think of no other individual since Thomas Edison who has been as instrumental to such a long run of market-leading products.  Hopefully for Apple stockholders, Jobs leaves the company in the hands of a management team as visionary, exacting, and demanding as he.

Apple is the epitome of sustained technology domination that has not been defined by any one product.  Instead, it is defined by its ability to take that which has been done by others, simplify it, add style, a coolness factor and then market the crap out of it. Apple’s continued success of reinventing itself and redefining markets is the very definition of great execution.  It isn’t the product, it is the company, it is the team, and it is Steve Jobs.

Secret Sauce vs. Execution

It is my contention that finding a company that is both overflowing with secret sauce and execution is rare indeed, and such a company is the definition of lightning in a bottle.  When you find the blue dot in the diagram above, you’ve found something unique and very special.

When you find the red dot, the Segways and TiVos of the world, you have found a really cool idea that probably isn’t going to be crossing any chasms. The technology landscape is littered with failures of poor execution that paved the way for evolutionary entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs to execute and monetize someone else’s great idea.  Steve Jobs did not invent the computer, the mouse, the digital music player, or the smart phone, he made them must have items.

For me, if given a choice between a company with great secret sauce or an impressive ability to execute, execution trumps secret sauce.

The eureka moment of creating a truly unique and valuable secret sauce is not easily repeatable. Lightning rarely strikes the same bottle twice.  If Apple’s secret sauce is truly Steve Jobs, then Apple shareholders have a problem.

If, however, the secret sauce is the process of distilling vision, a culture of demanding perfection, and a quest for continual improvement, Apple is an execution play, and Steve Jobs was the keeper and definer of the process.  Executing process is very repeatable and succession is not as risky as trying to duplicate the eureka moment of discovering a truly patentable unique invention.

Execution trumps secret sauce, and for me, when asked what’s the next big thing, it is execution.  Will Apple be able to execute without their maniacally brilliant leader?  Time will tell.

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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