8 min read

How To Succeed Like Apple

/* First off, this is not a fanboy piece. Apple’s successes do not depend on others having to fail. The other companies mentioned below such as Microsoft, DELL, and Google are doing pretty well. I have no intentions of starting a flamewar or Android/PC/Google/etc. debate. */

Everyone seems to think Apple is superhuman with a magical business crystal ball. When they launch a new product (okay, iPod Hi-Fi not included), it’s usually a true hit amongst consumers. If you look at Apple’s strategy it’s actually pretty simple and straight forward. The real key is Apple’s ability to stick to this simple strategy with unwavering dedication. Here’s what I feel is the key to succeed like Apple with your own startup:

You don’t need to be the first: Apple lets others Fail first. The Diamond RIO and many others existed before the iPod, PC manufacturers have been doing tablets for years, and RIMM was worth tens of billions of dollars when the iPhone was just a rumor on Gizmodo. First mover advantage is great, but it can often be a detriment. It’s sort of like buying a new model of a car the first year its available. Its nice to have it first, but you will probably have to deal with all the unforeseen problems. Let someone else be the guinea pig.

Often the first to get it right: When Apple does release a new product or even feature they are usually the first to get it right in terms of usability. They let other companies fail first and listen in on why they failed with crystal clear clarity. Look at the original iPod. They knew other MP3 players existed, but they found the benefits that people really wanted (small form factor like a Diamond RIO with the storage space similar to that of a Nomad).  John Gruber explores this concept in-depth in what happens to be one of his best articles imho.

Speak in soundbites: “Thousands of Songs. In your pocket.” “A magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price”  “This changes everything. Again” Remember these phrases? Some are old and some are only months old, but they certainly stay with you over time. Apple makes sure that the message is delivered in a soundbite that a reporter or someone telling their mom can deliver in 5 seconds or less with extreme clarity. There’s always more to tell, but it’s a hell of an opener. It sets the tone for why the product matters.

Benefits are primary, features are secondary: Let’s go back to the Thousands of Songs in your pocket example.  That’s a benefit.  I now have all of my music in my pocket.  If Apple had used 5GB of space, that would be a feature.  Apple puts benefits before features and technical specs.  They emphasize the benefit of a technology.  Battery life in terms of work hours, storage in terms of music hours/total photos, etc.  Talk to your customers in terms of benefits.  Things like security, the ability to hold more stuff, work longer, and work faster are things they understand.  GHZ, MPs, GBs, and 48X are just confusing.

Keep the number products you offer low: Tim Cook said that every product Apple makes can fit on the small table at their annual shareholders meeting. Think about that: 200 billion dollar+ market cap company, which produces physical products can fit all of them on a small table. Could you imagine Asustek or HP fitting all of their products on one table? Doubtful.  They have a million different products with a million different configurations.  It’s overwhelming for the consumer.  Another way to look at apple’s simplicity in its product offerings can be seen with the introduction of the Original iMac. Steve used a 2×2 grid. Their computers are divided into laptops and desktops, each with a pro or consumer version. iMac, Mac Pro, Macbook, and Macbook Pro. That’s it. (They have since added the Mac Mini and Macbook Air. I don’t know where they exactly fit and that may be the reason why Apple sells less of these products than others). Before Steve returned to Apple, their computers used weird model numbers like Asian manufacturers. Things were a mess.

Be as proud of what you say no to than what you say yes to: Everyone wanted a Newton2 or a Netbook, but Apple wouldn’t give it to them. It just didn’t fit into their vision or where they were going.  As an entrepreneur, your customers, investors, friends, and even random strangers will want you to do things that may sound exciting and even lucrative.  That doesn’t mean you should do them. It’s hard and it’s tempting, but learn to say no way more than you say yes.  It will keep you focused and within the confines of your vision.  Here’s one of the many examples Steve exercises this belief too.

Have a consistent and polished style/user interface: Applications on the Mac or the iPhone are just a pleasure to use. Mac devs might be more UI/Designer centric than Windows devs, but I don’t have any data to back it up. Instead I’d like to attribute it to Apple’s strict human interface guidelines. You know how an iPhone app should act or how a Mac app will work. Many of the icons are similar, the interaction gestures work consistently, and the overall look of the app makes you say: “This is an application made for an Apple device.”

Don’t Design By Committee: Another interesting tidbit from the most recent D Conference was Steve Jobs’ comment that Apple was the largest startup on the planet and that there were no committee. Apple puts the company first and foremost, not individual people.  No one person, even Steve himself, is above Apple.

Don’t compete on price: Apple has never been one to compete on price. The recent low pricing of the iPad seemed to shock people, but starting at $499 for the lowest spec’d version makes it a very high priced netbook (My belief is that the iPad does what Netbook were set out to do: portable, web centric, and always on internet). When you talk Apple with others there’s a good chance you’ll hear: “BUT THEY ONLY HAVE < 10% OF THE MARKET.” That thinking is short sighted. Apple has 90%+ of the premium computer market (machines costing >$999). They make BMWs, not Fords.

Have a Clearly Defined Leader: Everyone knows Steve Jobs is the leader of Apple in the same way everyone knows Mark Zuckerberg is the leader of Facebook and Tony Hsieh is the leader of Zappos  It’s a face and a personality that people can associate with your brand.  It keeps things personal.  People want to know that someone is calling the shots and can be identified with inside of the organization.  Do you know who the CEO of AT&T or Comcast is?  I didn’t for quite a while, and I think that reflects back on to their culture.

Always recognize Your Team: Take a look at any major product announcement.  At the end of the announcement, Steve always thanks the team leaders and usually asks those who worked on the product to stand up.  Believe it or not, but you know many of Apple’s supporting cast of leaders quite well:  Phil Schiller, Jonathan Ive, Tim Cook, etc.

Deliver exceptional service: Everyone always asks me why I pay so much more for a Mac.  The main reason beyond the quality of the software and hardware?  The service.  I’ve had products break that were out of warranty or things just go wrong.  Every single time Apple has replaced them or done well by me.  They certainly didn’t have to.

Educate Your Users: Apple also spends a ton of time making sure users are educated.  Whether it’s why you should switch from a PC or how to use iPhoto, they make sure that you have a way to get educated.  It might be through the 1to1 service for only $99 or showing up for a free class in the Apple Store.  I can’t think of a single OEM that does that for their user in a clear and concise way.  Maybe it’s the lack of a dedicated retail presence from guys like DELL or HP, but there would be other ways to accomplish this.  They could easily replace some of the crapware with a free trial to Lynda.com with a dedicated HP section.

Real artists ship: Apple is a culture of shipping products out the door. The routine is pretty clear now: January is iPad/completely new product reveals (formerly Macworld time), later Winter is iOS preview, June/WWDC is new iPhone reveal with a launch a few weeks later, and Fall is iPod/iTunes update time. They usually don’t waver and they don’t stray from this schedule.

Only make a product you would give your friends+family: For a while everyone kept asking: “When is Apple making a Netbook?” The constant response would be: We don’t know how to make a computer for the price of a netbook we would be proud of. It’s just not in our DNA. It’s not something we would give to our friends and family. That’s a great rule of thumb for building a product: Is this something you would be proud enough to give to your friends+family as a Christmas gift?

Evolutionary “Porsche like” improvements: Look at this photo. It shows all four versions of the iPhone. Even the iPhone4, which is considered a huge leap forward, is still an evolutionary improvement. Take a look at the original Macbook Pro from many years ago. It still resembles the current unibody model. This reminds me of the Porsche strategy. You know a Porsche when you see it, and its design is still very similar to Porsches from over 50 years ago. The design is timeless due to evolutionary improvements.

Throw events: Marc Benioff likes to use this strategy with Salesforce in order to create buzz and it obviously works well for Apple.  The world has grown accustomed to watching Apple events and can expect products to be delivered there.  Apple funnels everyone’s emotions into one high impact event that is well thought out and coordinated.  Facebook has started to do this with F8 along with SalesForce’s annual dreamforce conference.  Throwing events lets you connect with developers and your customers, along with coordinating launches to the public.

Build mystery: Apple has been cultivating the press and building a culture of mystery with PR since its early days with Regis McKenna.  A leak is akin to a black swan event that could have never been expected and usually attributed to shit just happening (or leaving a phone at a bar while drunk).  Rumors fly rapidly for months before and Apple goes to great lengths to keep its products secret.  Build mystery and let your customers+the press anticipate what you’re about to deliver.  Business should be part showmanship.

Every pixel is guilty until proven innocent: Less is certainly more and every last design cue and pixel should have meaning.  Unless it adds something and fits in, it should not be there.  Start removing things from your product and ask yourself and your users:  “Without this, does the product lose value?”  You will be surprised at how much just doesn’t matter.