Home / Columns / Book Reviews / Zero to One: The $700 billion fly in the ointment
Apple I
Apple I

Zero to One: The $700 billion fly in the ointment

In my previous article I mentioned there are one or two other quibbles I have with Zero to One, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, which is an otherwise good book. This article focuses on a passage concerning minimum viable products (MVPs) that seems to revise history somewhat.

At one point Thiel holds up Apple as a shining example of why planning is superior to the lean methodology. Says Thiel:

The greatest thing Jobs designed was his business. Apple imagined and executed definite multi-year plans to create new products and distribute them effectively. Forget ‘minimum viable products’ — ever since he started Apple in 1976, Jobs saw that you can change the world through careful planning, not by listening to focus group feedback or copying others’ successes.

But far from being the poster-child for planning, it is more like a $700 billion fly in the ointment for Thiel’s argument against MVPs. The above might describe Apple the modern day publicly traded company, but it most certainly does not describe Apple the scrappy startup. Since Thiel’s book is about starting a company that lasts, the beginning is the part of the Apple story that counts.

Luckily for us, Steve Jobs very clearly laid out the genesis of Apple, which amounts to the creation and selling of the Apple I, in a 1985 interview with Playboy.

Playboy: Again, the idea was just to do it?

Jobs: Yeah, sure. And to be able to show it off to your friends.

Playboy: What triggered the next step— manufacturing and selling them to make money?

Jobs: Woz and I raised $1,300 by selling my VW bus and his Hewlett-Packard calculator to finance them. A guy who started one of the first computer stores told us he could sell them if we could make them. It had not dawned on us until then.

Playboy: The Apple I was for hobbyists?

Jobs: Completely. We sold only about 150 of them, ever. It wasn’t that big a deal, but we made about $95,000 and I started to see it as a business besides something to do. Apple I was just a printed circuit board. There was no case, there was no power supply; it wasn’t much of a product yet. It was just a printed circuit board. You had to go out and buy transformers for it. You had to buy your own keyboard. [laughs]

Playboy: Did you and Wozniak have a vision once things started rolling? Were you both thinking about how big it could get and how computers would be able to change the world?

Jobs: No, not particularly. Neither of us had any idea that this would go anywhere.

You get the picture. The Apple I was literally the Mother of All MVPs: no case, no power supply, no keyboard, no screen.

Interestingly, in this particular interview, Jobs hints that the idea of starting a company based on the Apple I had not even occurred to them until the owner of the Byte Shop, Paul Terrell, planted the idea in their heads (Terrell was in attendance at the meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club where the Apple I was first demonstrated, though the deal happened later at the Byte Shop. Lesson: always follow up!).

The Apple founding story is well known, so it’s bordering on disingenuous to suggest that Jobs and Woz had some great plan from the get go.

Apple’s big secret, though, was that computing would eventually be for everyone, not just scientists at universities and major enterprises. Eventually. But that MVP built for hobbyists kickstarted the $700 billion company we know today.

About Ricky Robinson

When he's not writing for The Tech Street Journal, Ricky's working at NICTA, Australia’s ICT Centre of Excellence, where he performs a mix of industry engagement, research and, of course, software engineering. Ricky holds a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Queensland and spent some time in Mountain View, California, at Sun Microsystems Research Labs. Ricky's the prime instigator of TSJ.