Being more like Apple is harder than it sounds

We’re a celebrity driven culture. Business is no different, and today’s corporate Brangelina is Apple. The stock, the vision, the products and the profits – even with a recent stock slide, the company is the poster child of everything an American company should do.

So as an innovative leader, your job is to be more like Apple, right? Here I explore three Apple questions. Why aren’t you more like Apple? Can you import Apple by hiring their staff away? Most importantly, should you be like Apple?

Why aren’t you more like Apple?

Apple CEO Tim Cook discusses Apple’s competitive advantage: “Innovation is deeply embedded in Apple’s culture…it’s in the DNA of the company…the real magic happens at the intersection of [hardware, software and services].” In “Why Doesn’t Anybody Copy Apple”, the author argues that this integration is the key Apple differentiator. In other words  it is a process that makes Apple different and that makes it harder to replicate. Like any integration, pieces may be replicable but recreating the entire strategy is much harder.

Can former Apple Executives capture the magic?

Another way of looking at the same equation is to see how Apple employees fare as ambassadors of innovation and Apple culture when they join other firms. If anyone can capture Apple in a bottle, it should be the executives who contributed to the company’s success and lived it first hand. Brad Stone examines this  against the backdrop of former Apple executive Ron Johnson’s abrupt exit from J.C. Penney. He concludes that Apple executives have trouble running established large firms. Johnson ran up against price sensitive consumers who behave differently from Apple customers. Similarly, Jon Rubeinstein ran Palm in 2007 and launched a well-reviewed phone and a new mobile platform before HP purchased it in 2010. Few if any of his product improvements survived his departure in 2012.

An analyst who follows Apple disagrees with Cook’s innovation DNA hypothesis. he speculates that Apple executives have been trained to do what their CEO wanted, and that this particular skill set does not translate well. Regardless of whose hypothesis is more accurate, one fact seems to hold. As cultural export agents, Apple executives have not succeeded in exporting the ‘winning culture’ to other organizations.

Should you spend time trying to be like Apple?

In Fast Company earlier this month, Brian Millar offers 5 reasons why you shouldn’t try to be Apple.

  1. Apple does not fully understanding Apple’s thinking (capturing some level of celebrity driven fascination that borders on the obscene and revolves around others guess what Apple thinks)
  2. Observers ignore Apple’s failures and their general disdain of customer needs testing. Not all Apple initiatives are or have been successful
  3. Stealing a strategy that doesn’t exist (maybe Apple is driven by smart people making stuff up as they go along)
  4. Apple has been susceptible to Samsung’s advertising and distribution strategy,
  5. The focus should be on thinking differently and the importance of focusing on what customers will be loyal to.

The takeaway is simple. Apple is hard to copy even for Apple executives. There are a number of reasons why trying to be a different company is not a good idea. Perhaps demystifying Apple instead of focusing on your own business isn’t the best use of your company’s time…..


Can Yahoo Play Like a Startup Again?

There has been a good deal of press about Marissa Mayer’s attempts to revive the Yahoo brand and bring back some of the Startup mystique that it had 15 years ago. A recent article in the NY Times discusses Mayer’s attempts.

The highlight has been “infusing fresh blood and ideas…by buying creative start-ups”. The article highlights how Yahoo has fumbled past acquisitions such as Flickr and Delicious, companies that were successful predecessors to Instagram and Twitter.

Mayers’ street cred from her time at Google seem to be paying some dividends in buying Yahoo a redemptive chance to buy promising startups and acquiring their technical talent in the process. She has had to overcome the belief that Yahoo is where great technical talent goes to wilt away.

I recently had a chat with an executive at AOL about a similar effort, their Fish Bowl incubator in the DC Suburbs. He discussed similar goals to Mayers’ including infusing startup culture and finding great technical talent. Rather than focus on bringing talent in house, his program revolved around bringing in new talent for 3-6 months and facilitating developer and staff interactions.

While AOL and Yahoo have similar legacies, it remains to be seen which Innovation approach will pay the most dividends. The question that seems unanswered in both cases is after money and basic support, what the companies offer startup talent in the long term?