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Jobs and Gates at the D7 conference in 2007 (Asa Mathat photo)

In a recent appearance at the Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon, author Malcolm Gladwell provided some fascinating remarks about the role of entrepreneurs in society, drawing some interesting conclusions about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Gladwell called Gates “the most ruthless capitalist” until the day when he “wakes up one morning and says enough and steps down and he takes his money, he takes it off the table.” For that alone, Gladwell believes that Gates will be revered like no other entrepreneur of his era.

“I firmly believe that 50 years from now he’ll be remembered for his charitable work. No one will even remember what Microsoft is, and all the great entrepreneurs of this era, people will have forgotten Steve Jobs. There will be statues of Gates across the third world and … there’s a reasonable shot … because of his money, we will cure malaria.”

The author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference and Outliers offered some additional insights on entrepreneurs throughout the talk.

“We venerate entrepreneurs in our culture. They are our new prophets. Literally we worship them,” said Gladwell. But he quickly added that the greatest entrepreneurs are “amoral” because they are “completely single minded and obsessively-focused on the health of their enterprise.”

“That’s what makes them good at building businesses but that’s what also makes them people who are not worthy of this level of hagiography,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Gladwell retells the story of Steve Jobs who while on his deathbed refused an oxygen mask several times because he didn’t like the design of it.

“It was like making him send his final emails using Windows,” Gladwell said to laughs from the crowd.

Earlier in the talk, Gladwell called Jobs “an extraordinary businessman and entrepreneur” but also “a self-promoter on a level we have rarely seen.”

“Think about it, look, all of the things that made him a brilliant self-promoter, they overlap with what made him a great businessman, right? He was brilliant at understanding the image he wanted to craft for the world. What was brilliant about Apple? He understood from the get-go that the key to success in that marketplace was creating a distinctive and powerful and seductive brand, and he was as good at doing that for laptops as he was for himself.”

The portion of the talk where Gladwell talks about Gates and Jobs begins at minute 9:45 in the video below.

The entire video offers a fascinating discussion of entrepreneurs and their role in society, starting with Gladwell talking about the differences between Oskar Schindler and IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad.

In minute 17, Gladwell talks about why entrepreneurs don’t really want to be first in a market, citing examples of Friendster in social networking and Alta Vista in search. He also adds that: “Jobs was never first. He was later to every single party…. and was quite happy ripping people off.”

In minute 20, Gladwell also says that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are not big risk-taking entrepreneurs, adding that entrepreneurs typically take “social risks” of enduring years and years of being a pariah. Fascinating stuff.


[Hat tip to BRW]

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