When I was little, my aunt who lives in California visited my family in Korea. She gave me gifts she brought from the US, and the most memorable one was A Bug’s Life VCR. I could not understand a single word from the movie as I could not speak English at the time. Still, I watched A Bug’s Life over and over until the tape stretched, imagining the storyline myself purely based on the image and sound. Almost 20 years later, I saw A Bug’s Life available at Disney+, and I could not resist re-watching it. This time, the experience was different as I was shocked to see the parallel between A Bug’s Life and Steve Jobs’ legacy in Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. What message did Steve Jobs want to send through the mouth of Pixar, the company he founded?
[This article contains the spoiler of A Bug’s Life and Steve Jobs’ life]
Flik is an outsider ant who invents something new and peculiar that he thinks can “make a difference” to his colony. However, even though he invents a groundbreaking grain harvesting machine, no one acknowledges its value because it does not fit the existing system. The leadership ignored his vision to use new technology to take full control of the grain production on the island they live in. Now, let’s watch Apple’s 1984 Superbowl commercial. The commercial portrays Apple’s vision to break the PC hegemony by IBM with the introduction of the Macintosh, which pretty much resembles Flik’s effort to revolutionize the food harvesting system in his colony. To achieve his dream, he had to 1)get rid of grasshoppers and 2)build a new technology-based system.https://www.linkedin.com/embeds/publishingEmbed.html?articleId=7645893453575601071
The conflict starts because Flik’s machine accidentally demolishes the food offering to grasshoppers, which puts the whole ant colony under further exploitation. Frustrated by the harsh reality, he goes on a journey to find warriors who can defend his colony from grasshoppers. He finds the group of insects that he thought were fighters, but it turned out they were just an unpopular circus crew. Flik then goes on the full Steve Jobs mode and tries to BS the way through instead of admitting his failure. He blames the group for “false advertising” and says “I will be ‘branded’ with this mistake rest of my life.” After that, a miracle happens. Flik and his team save the young princess from the bird’s attack, which bestows him full support and credibility from the colony. Now let’s look at Steve Job’s presentation that unveiled NeXT Computer in 1988. He managed to run an eloquent demonstration of his product that was UNFINISHED at the time (source). Miraculously, the computer did not crash throughout the presentation which helped Jobs to keep his brand value. Considering A Bug’s Life was a 1998 movie, Steve Jobs continues this tradition for the iPhone in 2007 when he gave a sensational presentation with the product full of error.https://www.linkedin.com/embeds/publishingEmbed.html?articleId=7218330108339292398
After the rescue, Flik leverages his newfound credibility with the colony to launch a new project of making a real-size bird model that can scare off the grasshoppers. The steps he takes to make this happen are also very similar to the way most startups pivot the product and grow the organization. His original plan was to hire the mercenary group to push out grasshoppers, but as soon as that fails, he pivoted to another idea. In real life, Instagram pivoted from the location-based web app called “Burbn” to the photo-sharing platform and Slack pivoted from the game called “Glitch” to the business communication platform. Upon his return to Apple, Steve Jobs also pushed the company into a new path by terminating the production of many items like Apple Newton and focused the company resources on Macintosh and MacBook development. After the pivot, Flik walks through the royal road of business development. He first convinces his team about the plan, his team convinces the colony leadership, and the colony unites its workers to build the bird together. These processes parallel with how companies grow bigger in Silicon Valley. Companies like Apple started as a small group of engineers, presented the demo to the investors to receive a series of investments, scaled up the company to build the product, and released them in the market.
Flik builds the bird successfully, but another hardship arrives as the circus owner comes and unexpectedly debunks his lies. The colony exiles Flik and his team, but the situation gets worse as they fail to collect more food for the grasshoppers. Flik then returns to the colony to save his people. Funny that the prior sentence works perfectly fine even when we change the name Flik to Steve Jobs. It is a well-known story that Steve Jobs got fired from Apple and later returned to save the company from bankruptcy. The colony fully incorporates Flik’s inventions and systems after he heroically defeats the grasshoppers, and ended up embracing Flik’s inventions to monopolize the full capacity of the grain production within the island they live in. I wonder how they predicted the future, but Apple today also built the platform that monopolizes the userbase monetization within their ecosystem. This omnichannel business model that utilizes the full hardware and software technical capacity to trap users in a single platform is now also incorporated by other companies like Amazon and Google.
A Bug’s Life wowed me for several reasons. It was a well-made ode to the innovators who revolutionized the conventional system to make a positive difference. Flik portrays the ideal entrepreneurship of having a tech-savvy mindset for problem-solving and uniting his team and colony under a single meaningful vision. He was not hesitant to pivot when the initial plans failed and persisted to receive funding to grow his project. In the end, he achieves his goal of monopolizing the grain production within their ecosystem by protecting his colony from grasshoppers and convincing his colony to incorporate his inventions.
However, I am critical of how the movie delivers the message, “The end justifies the means.” Flik had a happy ending despite the damages he incurred with his lies, which can be an advocation of how Steve Jobs grew his companies by having deceptive presentations of products that were not ready. I have to highlight that Flik could return after an exile only because his people already invested too much in his project because he convinced them with lies, leaving them with no other choices. Even though Flik’s saga was portrayed heroically, he was not much of a hero, and so is Steve Jobs in reality. I understand that exaggeration can be inevitable to run a business, but fully tolerating it is toxic to the spirit of entrepreneurship. Forcing the whole organization to pour all resources based on uncertain premises is committing a crime against hardworking employees and investors.
I strongly recommend people to re-watch A Bug’s Life as an adult. I had so much fun observing how I experience and interpret the movie differently compared to my childhood. Based on what you do today, Flik and his story can represent many different industries. As someone who is working for a startup in California myself, I was astounded to see how Flik resembles Steve Job’s life story and the history of Silicon Valley ventures.