Who Will Be the Next Steve Jobs?

Who will be the next Steve Jobs?Steven P. Jobs died yesterday, leaving behind a wife, four children, and a resume that would-be world changers will find hard to match. The Apple (AAPL) co-founder helped unleash not one, but two tech revolutions. One gave rise to the personal computer as a personal accessory. The other gave rise to the smartphone, and is ongoing.

The King is dead, and while Tim Cook is Apple's new CEO, a grieving tech world suggests there's no obvious heir to Jobs's throne as the reigning monarch of innovation.

A Legacy of Outperformance

Much will be written in the coming days about the life and legacy of the former Apple chief. Some, like co-founder Steve Wozniak, will say he was a marketing genius who knew what would sell. Others, such as product reviewer Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, will remember his uncommon mix of stubbornness and optimism.

As an investor, I find myself playing and replaying the original "Think Different" ad narrated by Jobs. It's not only descriptive of the man himself -- one of the "crazy ones," as he says -- but also the sort of leader that delivers for investors. Jobs was the sort of founder who is crazy enough to believe in a world-changing vision -- and then build a company to deliver on that vision.

No one has ever delivered better than Jobs. On a split-adjusted basis, Apple went public at $2.75 a share 31 years ago. The stock closed at $378.25 yesterday. Investors lucky enough to hold for the entire period have enjoyed a 17% annualized return. That's Warren Buffett territory when it comes to investing outperformance.

Who Will Be America's Next Top Innovator?

The implication for investors is obvious: Find a founder capable of delivering on a similar scale and you'll have a much easier time funding your retirement. Here are five candidates I believe have a chance at delivering on an insanely great scale Jobs would be proud of -- mostly because they've already accomplished so much.

1. Mark Zuckerberg
Fortune already referred to the Facebook founder as Jobs' heir apparent in September, after Zuckerberg gave a generally well-regarded speech at his company's annual developer conference.

"He's still prosaic where Jobs [was] poetic, but he's starting to learn to appeal to people's aspirations, not just their pedestrian desires for convenience," contributor Dan Mitchell wrote at the time.

Numbers speak to Zuckerberg's impact. Facebook is set to go public next year at a valuation that could exceed $100 billion. More than 750 million people worldwide use Facebook actively. And thanks to Coca-Cola (KO) and other big brands, roughly 18% of all Internet display advertising now runs on Facebook. That's up from 7% in 2009.

Whether or not Zuckerberg inherits Jobs' legacy depends on how big social media becomes. If it's a fad that fades, watch out. But for now, with big brands behind it, Facebook looks like the new normal when it comes to keeping in touch.

2. Reed Hastings
This one may seem to be more of a stretch since shares of Netflix (NFLX) have taken a beating in the wake of price and policy changes that coincided with the introduction of Amazon.com's (AMZN) improved streaming library for Prime members.

Indeed, Hastings' insistence on simple pricing and affordable rather than new content could mean he's just plain crazy rather than a member of "the crazy ones." And yet, like Jobs, the Netflix founder has a way of proving skeptics wrong.

No one will be surprised if Hastings overcomes these latest setbacks. Netflix is leading a revolution, after all. Rather than use a DVD or Blu-ray disc, Hastings is taking us inevitably toward a future where all video is on demand and designed to our tastes and desires -- "my size fits me" programming that I'm perfectly happy subscribing to.

Jobs seemed to know it, too; it's why he put Netflix on Apple TV despite Hastings being on the board of Microsoft (MSFT). Perhaps he saw him as a kindred spirit?

3. Marc Benioff
The salesforce.com (CRM) founder gets dismissed for his antics, but his boisterousness is very often brilliant. When his keynote at Oracle (ORCL) OpenWorld was moved this week, Benioff took to the media to accuse his former employer of canceling on him. He then set up a well-attended alternative keynote rebutting Oracle's assertions about his company's products. You might say Benioff is what Jobs was, on steroids.

That has good and bad implications. Good, because Benioff is stubbornly pursuing a vision -- i.e., all business software delivered via a web browser -- that others think is crazy. Bad, because his stubbornness can become head-in-the-sand denial and make it difficult to work with partners. When that happened to Jobs, the Apple board fired him.

Even so, Benioff is a proven value creator. Early investors in salesforce.com have seen their initial investment multiplied seven times over. And that may be just the beginning. Benioff expects to preside over a company taking in more than $10 billion a year in revenue -- up roughly 5 times from today's levels. Few other than Jobs have ever displayed such naked audacity.

4. Larry Page and Sergey Brin
The Google (GOOG) twins acknowledged Jobs' influence on them in remembrances yesterday, but Page's got closest to explaining why these two and the company they created must occupy this list:

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"I am very, very sad to hear the news about Steve. He was a great man with incredible achievements and amazing brilliance. He always seemed to be able to say in very few words what you actually should have been thinking before you thought it. His focus on the user experience above all else has always been an inspiration to me. He was very kind to reach out to me as I became CEO of Google and spend time offering his advice and knowledge even though he was not at all well. My thoughts and Google's are with his family and the whole Apple family."

Able to say what you were thinking before you thought it -- a crazy notion that's just loony enough to inspire a certain search engine you and I both know well.

Steve Jobs will be missed, but his legacy lives on in every innovator who dares to break rules. Page and Brin. Zuckerberg and Hastings. Benioff. With Jobs gone, these are tech's crazy ones. You'd be nuts to bet against them.

Do you agree? Disagree? Please weigh in using the comments box below.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Apple, Google, and Netflix at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and past columns, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, and Google.
Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Salesforce.com, Microsoft, Amazon.com, Netflix, Coca-Cola, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have also recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft and Apple, creating a bear put spread position in Netflix, and shorting Salesforce.com.

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