The Time I Rang Steve Jobs' Doorbell

 

“If this is about God or religion, I’m not interested.” Steve Jobs had spotted us through his gate in our suits and thought we were bible salesmen.

I was knocking on doors, because, back in 2004, I’d been recruited by Bruno, a family friend based in Paris, to help build a global short film festival he had founded: The Pleiades. I was also to host the events happening in the Bay Area. I enlisted the help of my oldest friend Garrett. He was a pilot instructor and was making a far better living than I was. Among other things, Garrett graciously offered to front the costs of the initial event in Palo Alto. He also made for a dynamic partner.

Named after a small, bright constellation in the night sky, the Pleiades’ mission was to promote up-and-coming filmmakers through their short films. The idea was to juxtapose these “demo” reels from emerging directors with those of established names. We were here to show that the gap between the two was minimal, or nonexistent. The other principle we lived by was having the festival occur simultaneously in six cities – including Palo Alto – around the world. 

As we got closer to the festival, our founding team headquartered in Paris had worked every possible official avenue to obtain a short film from Pixar for its selection. With no response from the studio. And they’d been on a chase to sign major US-based sponsors. Among them, they’d been hankering for a sponsorship from Apple. Bruno started asking applying gentle pressure. Was there anything we could do, here, locally?

I started connecting the dots, “Why don’t we triangulate this thing? Jobs is at the top of both organizations (Apple and Pixar).”

I’d allowed myself to go there because a Jobs anecdote had been in the family annals for a decade. Steve had once knocked on my parents’ door unannounced one Sunday morning to ask for my dad’s take on his then-new venture NeXT. My father JLG and Steve had a complex relationship throughout the years, which started when they intersected as executives at Apple, in the early eighties. “Could we return the favor?”, I mused. I told Garrett, “We could go over and knock on his door. We know where he lives here in Palo Alto.” 

This was ballsy. And Garrett, being a pilot and a daredevil skier just nodded and smiled. His eyes twinkled at the prospect of pulling something like this off. 

We plotted to head over on a Wednesday evening around 6 pm. Garrett and I thought donning suits without ties was the ideal attire for our mission. We had prepared a folder overflowing with marketing collateral about the festival and had gone as far as putting together a glossy VIP invite for Jobs. We’d soften him up with an invitation to the event as our esteemed guest, and then launch into our pitch both for an Apple sponsorship and Pixar short. The perfect one-two punch, we figured. 

As we approached the day of the endeavor, I couldn’t help but ask myself if it was all worth it. We were willing to put our pride on the line, for the sake of a big win. Were we to make it happen, we’d be hailed as heroes by the Pleiades team back in Paris. And we’d have a legendary story to tell our grandkids. But if we swung and missed, we’d be left without a large sponsor for the event, and without a prized short film for our selection. 

And it didn’t even begin to factor in the risk of actually taking the bat off our shoulders. We could get summarily rejected by the biggest tech luminary around. Worse yet, we might get escorted off the property by members of his security. With no opportunity to meet Steve. My 23-year-old mind wandered, “Would there be hungry Dobermans, frothing at the mouth, on the other side of Steve’s gate? Could Jobs ruin our reputations in The Valley, if he took a dislike to what we had done? Would we be able to land the jobs we wanted down the road if he somehow held a grudge against us for barging in on his private life? He possessed formidable power and could decide to use it against us. Could we expect real trouble if we just showed up like this unannounced?” These outcomes all felt plausible. I attempted to snap back to the present and tried to focus on what we could control.

6 pm arrived. We got into my Chevy Lumina for the drive over to Steve’s house. A total of 10 blocks from my childhood home, we’d still wanted to drive. Maybe the idea of a quick ride made the venture more bearable. The truth was: we were petrified. I internalized my unease, while Garrett kept repeating, “Dude, you sure you wanna do this?” 

“Yes, bro. We owe this to the team back in France. And we have one another. Let’s do this!” I was just as scared as Garrett. My adrenals were firing. My heart rate had spiked. And I can still remember my hands sweating. I was doing a poor job concealing my nerves.

Before I could put the car in “Park”, Garrett had already raced up to Steve’s front door. His fear now fully suppressed, he was in execution mode. I ran to the door, catching my breath. Garrett pressed the doorbell. 

A male voice came on, telling us that we were not welcome if we were spreading the gospel. “No, no!”, we responded. “We’re here about a film festival. We’ve got an invite for you.” 

Miraculously, the gate buzzed open. We were let into his front courtyard. My first thought? “Wow. Here we are. I can’t believe it was that easy to get in.” As I settled into my environment, trying to ground myself, I couldn’t help but note that the residence looked beautifully unassuming. Quaint even. There were no marks of excessive ego. Zero gaudiness. Another plus was that no muscular security guards were closing in on us. Nor were any guard dogs ready to make us their dinner. Instead, a fluffy white dog strolled over and sniffed us. 

Out walked Steve. To our surprise, he greeted us warmly with a handshake. Steve’s wife Laurene, carrying a child on her hip, stepped into the home’s doorway. I could tell she was wondering what this was all about. 

“Garrett Woodman. Paul Gassée. Great to meet you, Steve. We’d love to have you as our VIP guest for our upcoming short film festival here in downtown Palo Alto.” 

Steve appeared to look at us with a mix of skepticism and respect for our chutzpah. One of the all-time great pitchmen was on the receiving end, this time. It felt like he was intrigued to see how this would turn out. Meanwhile, we did our best to keep our eye on the prize. We had been given a golden opportunity. We were in Steve Jobs’ presence after having knocked on his door. And he appeared willing to listen. I gritted my teeth, preying we were making a good impression. “We’ve also tried to get a Pixar short for the festival’s selection, but haven’t had any success in getting one. Oh…and we hoped to get Apple to be a title sponsor of the event too. We love the company.”

Before we could press on, Steve had heard enough, “Send me an email. S-Jobs at Apple dot com.”

“Okay, that sounds great. I’ll follow up in the morning with an email. Thanks, Steve. We’ll let you get back to your evening. Thank you.”

As we were making our way out, Steve uttered, “Gassée…do you live over…?”

“Yes!”, I replied. “We live down the street.” 

The whole interaction lasted less than five minutes. But, we left thinking this was a success. Our foot was in the door. Literally. The tech icon had asked us to email him. Steve had even given us his email address. We were in, baby! 

 

I followed up the next morning, writing the most polished email of my budding professional life.  Attaching immaculate PDFs, I reread the message over a dozen times. The email was far too long for a man running a studio and a public tech company. But, I had a lot to say. And I felt this was our only shot. Better pack a strong punch.

Rookie move, I’d learn later. 

After pressing “Send” on the email, we waited. 

A week passed. Then another. The team back in Paris started growing impatient. About to cut the final selection of shorts so they could send DVDs to all participating venues – including ours in Palo Alto – they wanted an answer. Was Pixar in with a short film? 

We had already barged into Steve’s family time unannounced. He had told us to send him an email. We’d followed his instructions to the T. Steve’s silence was deafening. And unexpected to our inexperienced minds. What were we to do now? 

With blinders only youth could buy, I told Garrett, “Let’s go again. We need to close the loop here.”

Garrett agreed. But without some deliberation on both of our parts. This second act felt like an even bigger risk. One of the most powerful men in Tech hadn’t responded to us. Steve had been agreeable in our first encounter. Which wasn’t always in his nature, most knew. Were we in a place to do it all over again?

The short answer was: yes. With a strong dose of trepidation.

The suits sans ties were back on, in what felt like an eerie sequel. This time around, our backs were against the wall, as time was running out with Paris’ editing team. Our only remaining option was heading to Steve’s on a Friday evening, around 5:30 pm. Would going then yield a different result? Would Steve be more relaxed, as his weekend was just starting? Or would he feel more intruded upon in his time off work? I couldn’t help but think that we’d annoy him a lot by going back to see him. Especially since he hadn’t responded to our email. I did feel bound in my loyalty to the team back in Paris. “Let’s wring the towel dry on this initiative and see it through till the bitter end”, I thought.

All of these considerations were coming at me at a dizzying pace. I was doing my best to remain stable. Meditation having not entered my life yet, I was fighting not to let these thoughts uproot me. 

The first time around had been intense. This felt like an even bigger long shot. Saying out loud what we were about to do made it feel more daunting:  “We’re going to see Steve Jobs at his private residence for the second time in a few weeks. After he had failed to respond to our email follow-up. And we’re planning to do this on a Friday evening.” What possibly could go wrong?

And yet, off we went into the lion’s den.

The drive over felt familiar. But more dangerous. My nerves weren’t as shot as in our initial attempt. But both of us felt like we were pushing the envelope. Hard. 

We rang the doorbell. 

After what felt like a decade, a familiar male voice came on. We swallowed hard, “It’s the film festival guys. We’re here to…”

“Noooooooo!”, Steve interrupted. His gruff, authoritative tone caught us off guard. A sharp contrast to his charm the first time around. 

In an instant, it was all over. We walked back to the car, tail between our legs. What had started as a promising interaction had suddenly collapsed. We had nothing to show for our bold undertaking. We were dejected. Garrett and I commiserated on the drive home. What the hell had just happened? Our pitch had gone up in smoke. Yes, this thing had been risk-laden. And the odds firmly stacked against us. But our first encounter with Steve had felt so good. Not only had he accepted us onto his property, but he had been kind to us. Welcoming even. How could things have gone South so quickly? 

As the dust settled, my interpretation of the facts solidified. Steve may have been tickled by our first foray. His life had been about taking risks, forging ahead, and selling big ideas. At our small scale, armed with copious amounts of youthful ignorance, we had pitched The Pitchman himself. Maybe he had felt for us. Even been amused by our brazen ways. As we left, or as he had received our email, he likely gathered it wasn’t worth his time. And put a cork in getting involved with us.

As I zoomed out, I was able to see that, from an objective point of view: we failed. There’s no question about it. Our goal was to land a sponsorship from Apple, and a short from Pixar. And we came home empty-handed on both fronts. 

You might think this story ends with failure. And in some ways it did. We asked for punishment. Not only once. But twice. And got it. In spades. But looking back on it, Garrett and I both find quite a bit of pride in our adventure. We’re not ashamed to share the story; we’ve told it to family and friends several times. In our minds at least, this tale of failure lacks the sting you might expect. 

After processing what had transpired the second time, we faced our defeat head-on. The initial disappointment dissipated fast, leaving an asset in our psyches. Not a liability. We now hold our valiant effort as a source of inspiration. Faced with the fear of failure – not once, but twice – we had the gumption to marshall our internal resources to see the whole episode through. Despite what felt like gargantuan risk and unmanageable emotions, we held ourselves together long enough to make our pitch. This evidence of inner resolve has stayed with us for the past two decades. For pitches, we’ve had to do since. And other pressure-packed situations.

In all sales, you ideally want to operate the same way. Despite the pressures you might be feeling; if you’re able to not only keep yourself together, and manage your emotions, but also hold success and disaster as one and the same, you’re able to focus on the process and free yourself to perform at your best. That, to me, is what this story is all about. Yes, the outcome could have been different. But we took a chance and engaged with the world. With some gusto. Isn’t that what life is all about?