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How Pepsi and Apple Helped John Sculley Find His Noble Cause

I speak with the legendary John Sculley about his inspirational career, his time at Apple with Steve Jobs and the importance of having a noble cause.

John Sculley's journey began when he joined the Pepsi-Cola Company as a trainee in 1967. Within three years he would become the vice president of marketing and launch the famous "Pepsi Challenge" campaign where customers of all ages were challenged to choose between Pepsi and Coke.

By 1977, Sculley was unveiled as Pepsi's youngest CEO and president to date. However, many will have also heard about the legendary tale where Steve Jobs walked up to the Pepsi CEO and delivered the line, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come work with me and changed the world?” The rest, as they say, is history.

After taking over as chief of Apple Computers Inc. in 1983, Sculley famously clashed with Steve Jobs but it was also a highly profitable period during his ten years in charge. In a recent interview with John Sculley I wanted to explore what has inspired him on his journey, the lessons he has learned and if he approved of having Jeff Daniels play him in a movie.

Neil: Many will be familiar with some aspects of your career, but not that you went from driving Pepsi trucks to becoming the Pepsi C.E.O within ten years. Can you offer an overview of your inspirational story and what your big drivers were along the way?

John: Well, there's always luck involved, and that's true. Even for the most successful entrepreneurs that I've known in my lifetime, and it was undoubtedly right with me. I'd been working in New York for Coca Cola’s advertising and marketing agency, and I had learned a lot from the analytical side of the soft drink industry.

I then got hired by Pepsi as their first MBA, and they didn't know what to do with me. So they put me out on a Pepsi truck and said let him learn the ropes. I was sent out to Pittsburgh, and I worked in the bottling plant before transferred out to Phoenix, Arizona to get a different experience.

I would get up at 4:00 in the morning because it's so hot in Phoenix in the summertime. I would put Pepsi signs up on tin roofs in the daytime. The temperature can get up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was doing all kinds of different things of resetting shelves in the middle of the night time and, you know, learning the ropes.

Well, it turned out that was the best thing that ever could've happened in my life because while I was doing that, I was observing learning and years later when I got a chance to actually get in charge of marketing, many of the innovations, like the creation of the first 2 liter plastic bottle and the creation of the Pepsi Challenge Campaign.

You know, many of these things were inspired by things I observed when I started out as a trainee. So my advice is always to be curious, reach out and take risks. Don't worry about it if it doesn't seem obvious straight away because you will learn from every experience if you take it all in. I always found ways to draw on my experiences later on.

Neil: I don't want to concentrate too much on your past, but I do want to learn more about how your experience is helping you to make a difference now. So can you tell me more about how your time at Apple led to your current role as a disruptor in the healthcare industry too?

John: I first went to Apple in 1982. It was the early days of the high tech industry, and it was very different than the Silicon Valley is today. It was all engineers and was very technical then. I was the first consumer marketing person from corporate America to ever show up in Silicon Valley.

Most people had never even heard of Silicon Valley. So for me to be working with a brilliant founder like Steve Jobs and be surrounded by people like Bill Gates and Andy Grove was eye-opening. I understood that things were happening that were so different.

In my world, it was all about competition, you know, Pepsi versus Coke, who wins, who loses? I discovered in this world that it wasn't about getting more market share in an existing industry. It was about creating an entirely new industry, in this case, personal computers and software for personal computers and microprocessors for personal computers.

So this whole idea that entrepreneurs could create an entirely new industry and they thought in an entirely different way was something that has stuck with me through the decades.

Neil: Does it frustrate you seeing a lot of companies that put the technology first before they attempt to understand the problem or the solution?

John: Yeah. Many people assume that because there's so much going on with disruptive technologies that you should start with the technology first. The reality is that the big success stories always begin with, so what's the customer problem?

So let's take Facebook. Facebook didn't start with the technology. Facebook said you know, how do we connect people to people and become the most critical people conductor in the world. Google didn't start with technology. Google's said, how can we enable people to be able to navigate the World Wide Web.

The most innovative companies, almost always start with what's the big customer problems to solve and then the technology can be folded in. Steve Jobs was a brilliant recruiter, and he recruited people because he had a vision.

Jobs had the vision to build a personal computer for nontechnical people so that these nontechnical people would be able to do what he called amazing things with their bicycle. He started with the user experience, not what the technology was capable of. This has been consistent, in Apple's history and its incredible success.

Neil: Why is it that you believe that healthcare is your noble cause and what was it that inspired you to pursue this healthcare disruption?

John: I have been at Apple for about three months, and I was sitting around one evening with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in the Mackintosh engineering lab. It's still about a year before the Mackintosh was going to be a finished product and then launched in the market.

This is late at night, and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were talking about their noble cause that they were going to change the world one person at a time. They were going to empower knowledge workers, with tools for the mind and I'm sitting there listening to it and then you call this their noble cause.

Well, I come from the Cola wars, Pepsi versus Coke. Someone wins, someone loses. I've never heard the word noble cause before in business, and that has stuck with me through the decades. One of my very close friends, Bob Metcalf, who is the person who invented Ethernet said to me, "John, he said, people like you and me need to reinvent ourselves about every ten years, now go off and try something entirely different."

So I thought about that, and I kept coming back to, so is there a noble cause that I could get involved with, and I decided to choose healthcare because this is a problem that is of such a scale that it is affecting society. It's only going to become more acute as the population ages.

Neil: I also read a great interview with you recently where you spoke about how we live in a world where we can get the answers to anything and everything almost on demand. How do you think education should evolve and reflect this massive change?

John: I'd look at the experience of education experience with some of the most successful people. What for example do Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg all have in common in their education? The answer is they all went to Montessori school, and Montessori is a hands-on experience.

It's one that is getting students to be curious about things working together. It's all the things which we all do when we're beyond school. When we're out in the real world. So I think that there are role models for how to build a better education system and technology can help. I believe there are huge opportunities to disrupt the way people are educated.

Neil: Were you happy with the Steve Jobs movie? It was a piece of entertainment and much of it was not based on historical fact, but curious about your opinion?

John: That's right. Aaron Sorkin said, look, I wasn't doing a biopic on Apple. He said, I'm in the entertainment business and the reason he wrote the story the way he did, was that he was so upset by the fact that Steve Jobs had denied any relationship with his daughter for so long.

Eventually, at the end of the movie, there is a reconciliation between Steve Jobs and his daughter, Lisa. But the whole movie was much about Steve Jobs and his relationship with his daughter than it did about other things.

It was not an apple biopic, as Aaron said it, you know, I thought of it more like a painting than I did a photograph, so it was not entirely accurate in terms of all the historical details, but he was trying to tell a side of Steve Jobs personality. 

You can hear the full interview with John Sculley by clicking the link below.


Technology Apple Pepsi

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