On Steve Jobs and fake license plates

By Rod Griffith
January 13, 2017

On Steve Jobs and fake license plates

C-suite executives are just people. What gets your attention will get theirs.

Recently, I overheard a conversation regarding a C-suite focused executive marketing campaign designed with the ultimate goal of setting up an appointment for a face-to-face discussion with our client.

The debate was one I’ve heard before: Do we include some kind of promotional gift in the mailer to get the executive’s attention? Will executives pay more attention if the mailer includes something visual and fun—like a graphic t-shirt? Or don’t they care about those kinds of things? After all, these are high-level, well-paid executives who make million-dollar decisions. Why would they want a t-shirt or a tchotchke?

Well, because they’re just people.

They didn’t change their personalities when they became executives. There’s no formal “Executivation Process” they go through whereby they’re required to sign a pledge that they will no longer be excited by a free t-shirt.

My Three Days with Steve Jobs

In the early 1990s, I was managing a trade show booth for a computer company called Digital Equipment Corporation (don’t look for it—they were purchased by Compaq Computer, who was then purchased by Hewlett-Packard). We were attending a brand new trade show conference called Uniforum, which was focused on UNIX-based products and solutions. Held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, it was meant to be the West Coast version of the successful UNIX Expo trade show event.

By chance, our trade show booth was next door to a start-up computer company called NeXT Computers —founded by Steve Jobs when he was unceremoniously ousted from Apple in the late ‘80s. Steve was ever present in their booth during all three days of the Uniforum event—which was poorly attended and deadly slow. So I had plenty of opportunities to go over and try to chat with Steve. Now mind you, Steve Jobs was not quite the legendary, almost mythical figure that he became later. This was before his triumphant return to Apple where he would revolutionize the way we live. At this time, he was just the once visionary co-founder of Apple who had fallen on challenging times and was somewhat humbled to be starting from scratch with NeXT Computers.

His temporarily reduced status didn’t make him any easier to talk to, however. I’ve never had much fear approaching anyone. And since neither of us was too pleased with the low exhibit hall turnout at the event, I tried using that as my ice breaker—a means to introduce myself and engage in conversation, or so I had hoped. But as is often the case, I expected someone far more charismatic than the shy, stone-faced guy that stood in front of me.

So I changed tactics and began asking him about how things were going at NeXT. Not a good idea. I wasn’t a prospective customer, so he wasn’t going to waste his time talking technology with me. I tried to crack a joke or two—something, anything—to get Steve to smile and relax. But nothing seemed to work.

I returned to my booth, defeated—but determined to try again. So I grabbed our booth giveaway—a faux New Hampshire license plate that said “UNIX” across it, along with New Hampshire’s famous license plate motto: ”Live Free or Die.” Very much representative of the “keep software free” culture of the open source world, these license plates were a huge hit at UNIX Expo earlier that year; we easily gave out two thousand of them. So I thought that maybe this would get Steve to lighten up a bit.

When I walked over and handed it to him, he lit up with a smile while he stared at it. After what felt like an unusually long period of time, he looked at me and said, “These are great. Can I get some more?”

And while I had several brief encounters with Steve over the next few days, he was never quite as friendly or as animated again—reverting back to his rather stoical state.

But the point is: the license plate promotion—a $2 trade show giveaway—was enough to get Steve Jobs’ attention and allow me to have a quality one-on-one discussion with him.

So whenever the age-old debate comes up—“Will C-suite executives respond to free promotional items?”—I tell my Steve Jobs story to remind everyone that executives are just people. The things that make them smile—or otherwise take notice and pay attention—don’t change just because they’re executives. What gets your attention will likely get theirs, too.