Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak packed a large ballroom Tuesday at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, which buzzed with entrepreneurs attending Maritz's Innovation By Design Summit.
In a series of questions, Wozniak discussed technological divides, the local startup scene and what it takes to transform an idea into a business.
Q: What do you think of St. Louis as being a hub for tech startups?
A: I am actually very glad for it. My wife is from Kansas, very nearby. I like the way people are in the Midwest compared to where I grew up kind of – [there's] a lot of common sense stuff.
Almost everywhere you go in the world, you find cities that are trying to become technology hubs because digitization of our ways of life and business is so common and important. It used to be that you had to be in one little area. People got this idea from Silicon Valley because it grew up big in electronics. … Now, I’m finding Silicon Valley-like areas all over the place. It’s not surprising to see. Especially with the internet today, the whole world is one place.
Q: How do you use innovation and technology to bridge the racial divide?
A: I, myself, believe we have enough productivity in this country to really give everybody a much better life, enough of a life to know they have a future and it’s worth being educated. What if everybody in the United States were guaranteed $50,000 and another $50,000 was up to play as to who gets it?
In technology … if you’re an engineer and you’re a different gender or a different ethnic group, then it’s probably easier to get a job because companies want to equalize the scale.
Q: What is the secret to balancing entrepreneurship or innovation with working or going to school full time?
A: Most of it is on your own time. Even when I was working at Hewlett-Packard developing all these other outside ideas for hotel movie systems … designing calculators, the hottest product of their time, I’d do that in the daytime, but I’d go home at night and work on my own projects. I believed in the company I worked for so much that I offered them my computer designs – the personal computer – and Hewlett-Packard turned me down five times. Nobody thought it was worth any money back then.
Q: What would you say to baby boomers who are being replaced by millennials right now and what do boomers have to offer?
A: It’s normal. One generation goes, another comes in. I think that baby boomers are finding a very difficult economic situation now that they don’t have what they thought they would have by retirement and they’re working much longer. Lifetimes are also being extended. So a lot of people are working much, much longer and later in life than they were.
The younger generation will come in and they have a lot of great ideas. But, can they lead a company? Sometimes, you have to have a lot of stabilization. We call it dampening in electronics. You can’t fly off in every direction instantly and quickly. You have to be professional and thoughtful and think things out. That’s one of the things that comes with time.
So a lot of those who have been through the problem before, we baby boomers will be able to talk to younger people and say, “This is what happened to me.” And they generally respect the elders’ advice.
Q: What can large, established companies do to foster startups in their communities?
A: I’m for the young entrepreneurs. I’m for the startups. I love the idea of talking together with some friends, having a new idea and being able to implement it. And sometimes large companies can keep you from doing that. They’ve got control of certain types of products and marketplaces. You can have a great idea and great technical ability, but you’re restricted. I like more of the open source-type things.
Q: How can you transform a brilliant idea or product into a business?
A: If you want a business, you need a consortium of knowledge of different categories and it can all be in one person. But you need a business driver that knows you’re going to build a product that has to make money. You don’t go anywhere if you can just show it off. It has to be something that has a worth to people.
Secondly, you need marketing. That’s probably the most important thing that any company has. Marketing means knowing the person so closely who wants [a product] because you do. And you need the engineering. Engineers are so clever at solving little problems. If you have any weaknesses … you want to cover all the different disciplines that are needed to run a company.
Q: What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who are trying to develop something innovative, something disruptive, like you did?
A: It’s not easy. Basically, you stumble onto the things that are really going to be a home run, an advance for society. You stumble on to those things by accident, but you need to develop the skills. Buy yourself a Raspberry Pi or one of these little starter maker kits. A little chip computer is only $9. Start working on those projects and learning bit by bit.
If this is the path you like in life, you’ll keep doing it. If it’s not the path you like, stop. Go some other direction because you’ve got to be satisfied. So, get good at something. It doesn’t cost very much money to develop your skills. And, when you hit a home run and something’s worth a company, you’ll know it. And sometimes you know it, and you’re wrong. It’s still very hard to market things.
Q: What do you get out of a summit like this?
A: I get to talk about my favorite thing in life. I have been excited about everything technology can do, every hookup of a wire or software all my life. And, also, my words get heard, hopefully by younger people who say, “Oh, my gosh, Apple got started by two young kids that were under 20, that didn’t have any business experience, that didn’t have any money – no savings account, no rich relatives.” So the inspiration that this might be something [they] can do some day.