September 29, 2017
Rising tide of technology
Mark B. Johnson has an innate ability to detect change. Even as a college student he recognised the future of computing and forged a career path that saw him become an executive at Apple. Two decades later, Mark is a savvy advisor and investor, shaping startups worldwide and watching the future form before his very eyes in Silicon Valley.
Conducting an interview with former Softbank investor and Apple executive Mark B. Johnson via iPhone, I can’t help but revel in how communication and technology has changed in the 30-odd years I’ve been alive.
Mark’s journey began in France in the 1980s, where he was an American exchange student, and instead of travelling around Europe in between semesters, he took on a few side projects, using the money to buy an Apple IIe, which he used to teach himself to program.
I managed to sneak the computer back into the US after my exchange and carried a 12 inch monitor under my arm and went back to university,” Mark says, explaining he worked at the computer centre on campus to pay for school.
The French major student decided to forgo plans for an advanced degree in law and instead launched into a career with computing giant, Apple, in 1988, where his first job was editing technical documents and sample code for the developer relations group.
“How could I translate what engineers were saying, into something other people could understand? I had that unique mix of being able to speak normal English and using that to help them communicate what they were doing technically to try and broaden the base of developers and people coming into the platform,” he says.
Mark spent 10 years at Apple, “from John Sculley through Steve Jobs”, where he became director of the company and spent four years working overseas. In that time, he managed the developer prelude to macOS 10 and all developer relations outside of the US, as well as infrastructure and evangelism inside of the US.
I couldn’t have picked a better time to be in computing. When I started at school, there were people teaching punch cards on mainframes, then to see the first laser printer that came in and we got the first networked Macintoshes. The university I was at was an Apple consortium school, so I got to see a lot,” he says.
“Then going to Apple in 1988, when they were hiring like crazy and profit margins were still nuts, to going through near bankruptcy and seeing that whole change, and then there was watching the rise of Windows.
“When I left, it was during the boom years of Silicon Valley, so I did what many others did and jumped into a startup, that was my first taste of startups, where I got the itch.”
Mark relished investment and mentoring opportunities with a number of companies in the software infrastructure and mobile space, including Danger, a company started by the creator of Android, Andy Rubin.
“It started before he did Android, and if you ever saw The Devil Wears Prada, the device Anne Hathaway is using was the device they actually created – it was quite innovative, the first widely-adopted personal internet device and service for non-Blackberry users,” he says.
I live where much of the future gets invented. I can drive down the street at Mountain View next to autonomous cars. You’re working with people and seeing things you can tell the future is right here in front of us and not five or 10 years down the road.”
For the past six years, Mark has been coming to Australia to forge potential partnerships, and has spent the past three months as the Entrepreneur in Residence leading the Collider program run by QUT Creative Enterprise Australia (CEA) in Brisbane, which is the first creative tech-focused accelerator model in the country. And as part of his visit, he ventured to the Sunshine Coast, to meet with local movers and shakers.
“In Australia, there seems to be more competition between the different states than there should be, I’d like to see more co-operation and collaboration, and I’ve seen a lot of that here in Queensland, which I like. How do we get more people working together and have that rising tide lift all boats? That is what I’d like to help be a part of,” Mark says.
“It’s a 20-year journey to build an ecosystem, not a two-year journey; are you taking a long view and investing in the people, the long term infrastructure? It’s the entrepreneurs who need to build it, the government, universities and companies can play a role, but the people themselves have to step up and do it – the investors and the entrepreneurs.”
Tips for founders (and corporate executives)
1. Understand your why
Why are you doing what you are doing, and more importantly, why does it matter to your customers and to you? People don’t care about you and what you are selling, but rather what it does for them and why you are doing it.
Once you have the why, distill it down to the pure essence of what it is and keep going until you have the simplest embodiment of an idea that can be tested, debated, and changed until you have something that truly matters to your customers, to you, and to people who will want to join you on the journey.
Take your time figuring this out, as not only will it be the core of your solution, but it will also be a key piece of your company culture and brand.
2. Think bigger
If you are going to build a successful business, it will likely be an eight or 10-year journey, so it should be something worth eight or 10 years of your life. Don’t just make something to sell, don’t just improve something by 20 per cent, push for an order of magnitude difference or introduce the world to a new category of product or service, a new way to engage, or a new experience.
Do you see the future in a different light, and can you find a way to replace our current view with yours?
Focus on keeping your why simple and not over complicating what you need to do to achieve your goals. Put the proverbial stake in the ground and work backwards, breaking down the steps to measure progress into smaller chunks that allow you to move forward every day. What one, two, or three things do you need to do this year, this month, this week, today, in the next hour, to get to the goal?
Busy isn’t the same as productive, so if something doesn’t move you towards the goal, don’t spend time on it. Keep focused and keep moving forward.
4. Don’t worry about innovation or entrepreneurship, worry about solving a problem
There is almost always more than one way to solve a problem and some of the most innovative ways don’t involve looking at the problem the same way all of the “experts” do, but rather through a different lens or with a different perspective.
Some of the best solutions come from insights taken from other fields or areas and applying them in a way that might not be obvious or make sense to the domain experts, and this is why building diversity of experience and thought on your team is important, as is valuing the voices that sometimes get drowned out or may not think their perspective has relevance.
5. Ask for help and be prepared to give it as well
Building a company is hard and often a lonely path that will test your resilience, so it is important to reach out into the great ecosystem in your local community and beyond, and find others who understand your journey and can help you.
Be willing to “give first” or “pay it forward” as well and you’ll quickly find that you’re not alone on the journey. People may engage and help in ways you never imagined, which is one of the most rewarding things you might experience, but you have to be humble enough to ask for help, gracious when it is offered, and willing to do it for them as well.