Weekend inspiration for entrepreneurs:
Are you so driven to create something great, you would do it for free? That’s what Ron Avitzur did – By working at Apple when he didn’t even work there…
20 years ago, Ron was hired by Apple as a contractor, but his project was suddenly cancelled. As he recalls: “A year of my work evaporated, my contract ended, and I was unemployed. I was frustrated by all the wasted effort, so I decided to uncancel my small part of the project. I had been paid to do a job, and I wanted to finish it. My electronic badge still opened Apple’s doors, so I just kept showing up.”
Determined to create “something great”, he teamed up with a friend, Greg Robbins, who’s contract had also ended. They would come to work each day, working on Ron’s idea of a graphing calculator for the new Apple Power PC which was soon going to launch. He remembers the conversations whenever anyone asked them what they were doing:
Q: Do you work here?
Q: You mean you’re a contractor?
A: Actually, no.
Q: But then who’s paying you?
A: No one.
Q: How do you live?
A: I live simply
Eventually, an Apple team tried to move in to the empty offices where they were working, discovered them there, cancelled their badges and called security.
But then luck struck: “We were saved by the layoffs that began that month. Twenty percent of Apple’s fifteen thousand workers lost their jobs, but Greg and I were safe because we weren’t on the books in the first place and didn’t officially exist. Afterwards, there were plenty of empty offices.”
“We found two and started sneaking into the building every day, waiting out in front for real employees to arrive and casually tailgating them through the door. Lots of people knew us and no one asked questions, since we wore our old badges as decoys.”
The story of their dedication and secret project spread: “We had become a kind of underground cause célèbre.” That led to them attracting the help they needed, when they needed. For example, when they needed professional quality assurance to test the product, “Out of nowhere, two QA guys we had never met approached us, having heard about our venture through the rumor mill. They volunteered to help us, saying, “Let’s not tell our boss about this, OK?”
Then, the fateful day:
“In October, when we thought we were almost finished, engineers who had been helping us had me demonstrate our software to their managers. A dozen people packed into my office. I gave a twenty-minute demonstration, eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs.””
“Afterward, they asked, “Who do you report to? What group are you in? Why haven’t we seen this earlier?” I explained that I had been sneaking into the building and that the project didn’t exist. They laughed, until they realized I was serious. Then they told me, “Don’t repeat this story.””
“Then things got really weird. The QA manager assigned people to test our product. (I didn’t tell him that those people were already working on it.) The localization group assigned people to translate it into twenty languages…I was at the center of a whirlwind of activity.”
“Nevertheless, Greg and I still had to sneak into the building. The people in charge of the PowerPC project, upon which the company’s future depended, couldn’t get us badges without a purchase order. They couldn’t get a purchase order without a signed contract. They couldn’t get a contract without approval from Legal, and if Legal heard the truth, we’d be escorted out of the building.”
Then, another stroke of luck: “The director of PowerPC marketing was the son of a math teacher. Seeing the value of putting this educational software on every Macintosh in every school, they promptly adopted us.”
“We finished in January 1994. Graphing Calculator has been part of the Macintosh ever since. Teachers around the world use it as an animated blackboard to illustrate abstract concepts visually. It shipped on more than twenty million machines. It never officially existed.”
Thinking about why he did it, Ron says “I had neither budget nor headcount. I answered to no one, and no one had to do anything I asked. Dozens of people collaborated spontaneously, motivated by loyalty, friendship, or the love of craftsmanship. We were hackers, creating something for the sheer joy of making it work.”
What would you do for the love of it?
What would you happily do for free?
Do that, and the world will bend to you.
As Jeff Bezos says, “I’m always trying to figure out: Is this person who leads this company a missionary or a mercenary?”
“The missionary is building the product and building the service because they love the customer, because they love the product, because they love the service. The mercenary is building the product or service so that they can flip the company and make money.”
“One of the great paradoxes is that the missionaries end up making more money than the mercenaries anyway.”
Today, 20 years later, Ron still runs his company, Pacific Tech, based on the Graphing Calculator.