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Forty years ago today, an oddball trio, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne, founded a little computer company that turned out to be a bigger success than anyone could have imagined at the time. But that business, Apple (AAPL), could have just as easily gone under.
Surviving a near-bankruptcy in 1997 is a testament to Jobs, who led what is as rare as a mint condition Apple I computer is today: A tech turnaround. Few struggling tech companies have ever managed to pull one off.
That’s bad news for the likes of Yahoo (YHOO) and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), two once high-flying Silicon Valley companies that are trying to shake off years-long slumps. Yahoo, after a series of failed turnaround attempts, is now a likely acquisition target. Hewlett Packard Enterprise, along with its sister company, HP Inc. (HPQ), are on a go-it-alone strategy after splitting from each other last year.
Tech innovation moves so fast that if you fall behind, it’s excruciatingly difficult to ever catch up to those still sprinting.
Jobs did it by embracing the enemy—Microsoft (MSFT), which gave Apple a $150 million investment lifeline—and kickstarting a successful run of desktop computers, retail stores, and laptops, followed by iTunes and the iPod. You know the rest. Jobs did it by focusing Apple on only a few things, and doing them well. His keen marketing instincts didn’t hurt.
Priceline (PCLN), the travel site that initially thrived by letting customers bid on airline tickets, is among the tiny club of other tech companies that recovered from downturns. During the dot-boom, it soared along with nearly every other Internet wannabe—until the market soured and its shares tumbled so far that they were nearly delisted from Nasdaq. A turnaround strategy that included eliminating booking fees, refocusing on hotel reservations, and expanding overseas ultimately saved the company. Today, Priceline’s market value (PCLN) is nearly $64 billion, about the same as United Continental Airlines (UAL), Delta Air Lines (DAL), and JetBlue Airways (JBLU) combined.
So when you think about Apple’s accomplishments on its 40th anniversary, don’t just think about how it managed to turn iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks into a mega business. Think about how Apple, near death shortly after its 20th anniversary, was able to defy the odds and start the ultimate tech comeback.
Happy birthday Apple. Good luck Yahoo and Hewlett Packard.