What I Learned Negotiating With Steve Jobs
Fresh out of Stanford Business School, I started a software company, T/Maker, with my brother Peter. He was the software architect and I was, well, everything else. Our little company was among the first to ship software for the Macintosh, and we developed a positive reputation among the members of the nascent developer community, which led us to expanding our business by publishing software for other independent developers. Two of our developers, Randy Adams and William Parkhurst, went to work for Steve Jobs at his new company, NeXT, and that’s how I ended up head to head with Steve Jobs.
Turns out, Steve had a problem and Randy and William thought I could be the solution. Steve had done an “acquihire” of the developers who had written the Mac word processor MacAuthor. In order to make the deal economics work, Steve had promised to publish MacAuthor and pay royalties to the developers. But now, with the world’s attention on his new startup, how would it look to have NeXT’s first product be a word processor for the Mac? Randy and William suggested to Steve that if I were to be the publisher, the problem would be solved. Steve liked the idea, and invited me in to talk about it.
My first meeting with Steve lasted well over an hour. He grilled me about packaging, channels, distribution, product positioning and the like. I must have passed the test, as he invited me back to negotiate a publishing deal. I spent the next three weeks preparing detailed timelines, package mockups and drafting a very specific contract based on our experience with the other developers we had already published.
On the appointed day, after waiting in the lobby for 45 minutes (this, I would come to learn, was par for the course for meetings with Steve), I was called up to Steve’s cubicle. I remember to this day how completely nervous I felt. But I had my contract in hand and I knew my numbers cold.
Shortly into my pitch, Steve took the contract from me and scanned down to the key term, the royalty rate. I had pitched 15%, our standard. Steve pointed at it and said,
“15%? That is ridiculous. I want 50%.”
I was stunned. There was no way I could run my business giving him 50% of my product revenues. I started to defend myself, stammering about the economics of my side of the business. He tore up the contract and handed me the pieces. “Come back at 50%, or don’t come back,” he said.
I slogged down to my car feeling like I had just blown the biggest deal of my life. Lucky for me, someone had followed me out.
Dan’l Lewin, one of the NeXT co-founders, had a cubicle within earshot of Steve (actually, at that time, every employee was within earshot of Steve.) Dan’l had been working with me in background over the last few weeks and we’d developed a good relationship. If this deal did not get done, it was going to end up being his job to find someone else, so he really wanted me to get the business. Dan’l put his arm around my shoulder, and said one sentence, which I will never forget.
“Make it look like fifty percent,” he said.
“But I can’t afford to pay fifty percent!” I complained.
“I get that you can’t afford to pay fifty percent of gross,” said Dan’l, “but Steve wants to see 50% on that contract. So figure out a way to make a contract that you can live with that also says 50% at the bottom.”
That’s when the light bulb came on.
For Steve, this contract wasn’t that important to the future of NeXT. While we would go on to pay Next about $5 million in royalties over the life of the contract, and were their first source of revenue, we were not central to his mission (Steve later teased me that he made more money collecting interest on his bank account than he made from me.). However, he had promised the developers 50%, he had said the number within earshot of everyone, and he wanted to be able to tell everyone he got what he wanted.
I had to make the business make sense financially. I just needed to make my 15% look like his 50%.
To do so, I reduced the nut to split by first deducting the cost of packaging, of technical support, the salaries for some developers on my side of the business to implement fixes, and when I still couldn’t get the math to pencil out, I added a $6 per unit ‘handling fee’ thanks to some inspiration from an infomercial on the Home Shopping Network. My new “Hollywood net” number read 50%, but fully-loaded it was pretty close to the 15% of gross I needed to make the deal work. Magic!
Steve was happy with his 50% contract and the deal got inked. T/Maker became the publisher of the renamed WriteNow word processor, which went on to decent success, garnering 25% of the Mac word processing market during its multi-year run and making many millions of dollars for both NeXT and T/Maker. And, I went on to work with Steve for many years – but that is a different story!
Here is what I learned:
Know your numbers: I knew my numbers, what I could make money on, and what I could not. I understood which dials I could turn to make the deal work for me and for the other side.
Don’t let the bright lights blind you: I did not do a bad deal just because I was dealing with a high-profile person, no matter how tempting the glory was at the time. In my current life as a VC I can’t tell you how many times the entrepreneur wants to do a deal simply because it would be a great press release. Don’t do it!
Have allies inside the other organization: During my preparation process I had gotten to know Dan’l Lewin quite well, and he likewise got to know me as a proactive, thoughtful, ethical person that he wanted to do business with. Without him working the background this deal never would have gotten done. For every deal, it is important to cultivate other relationships inside the firm who can help you with perspective and work behind the scenes to move you into the yes position.
Understand the needs of the other person: In business school, I learned that negotiation is “the process of finding the maximal intersection of mutual need.” At first I did not understand Steve’s needs, but when I reflected on it after being banished from his cubicle, I came to realize that this deal was not important to NeXT in terms of dollars or future, but important for Steve to get the 50% he promised his developers. Once I got that, it was relatively easy to come up with a contract that met his needs but also met mine. People are not often as clear as Steve was — it sometimes takes extra work and lots of iterative communications to find out what the other person truly wants, but the process creates better, more sustainable deals.
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