How Apple's Culture Seeped Into Silicon Valley's DNA

There’s no question the business world has changed because of Apple. A look at the core cultural shifts that came as a result of Steve Jobs's leadership.

Apple’s culture has invaded the business world and had a powerful impact. As a supremely successful company that has risen above strife to become a market leader, competitors look to Apple for inspiration, adopting its practices to improve their own companies.

The other reason so many follow Apple’s example is because there are a slew of Apple "graduates," who, like me have taken its culture and strategies to new companies. Apple’s innovation, and its eventual success, led to its playbook being adopted by myriad other corporations—and for good reason.

Apple Without Jobs
I was the director of music and entertainment markets at Apple from May 1987 until December 1997, during the time Steve Jobs was away. His absence was felt, specifically via the lack of a cooperative brand of leadership—and it wasn’t easy. Fortunately, Jobs had created a strong company culture, and this maintained our vision during his absence. This meant working with the very best and brightest, people who wholeheartedly bought into the "dreamers and believers" vision, determined to stay true to both the products and the clients.

The advantage of Steve’s absence was that Apple employees had more autonomy. We mounted ambitious campaigns and created dramatic product launches. During the "50% margin days," the new leadership wined and dined us. We had Friday beer bashes, and we held team-building retreats in exotic locales periodically.

That’s not to say that Steve’s absence was a luxurious walk in the park. It’s true that Apple was compartmentalized under Steve, but people cooperated across division lines. Steve led the company with a blend of specialization and teamwork. During his absence, there was infighting among divisions, and the leadership decidedly did not encourage cooperation. With constant reorganization and leaders who suffered from Apple culture shock, it’s no wonder the stock eventually dropped. No one was making decisions at a time when decisions were desperately needed. The leadership gap was palpable, yet the culture remained intact.

Entertainment Innovation
I insisted on crossing division lines to maintain the spirit of cooperation Steve had started, confident he’d return someday. My charge during all of this was to drive music and entertainment initiatives. Luckily for me, the Macintosh was designed to help foster creativity at its outset, making it perfect for professionals in the entertainment industry. They loved it, and in less than a decade, the Macintosh became an indispensable partner to filmmakers and musicians.

Apple encouraged its clients’ artistic pursuits, and we launched "Apple Masters," a program that brought high-profile leaders in the entertainment industry to directly contribute to Apple’s creative development. Celebrities like Harrison Ford, Michael Crichton, Bryan Adams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Terry Gilliam became Apple consultants, so to speak.

We brought in some of these high-profile luminaries so employees could see the creative difference they were making, and so consumers would be inspired. I remember Mötley Crüe, in particular, because they didn’t just come to perform for employees at the Apple campus. They wanted to stand behind our products; they loved the Macintosh and showed us how it was helping them. It was a gesture of appreciation, and it was very memorable.

At this point in Apple’s history, my division was more focused on professionals than consumers, yet many of us felt it was time to connect the products more directly with consumers. My personal vision was to attempt a consumer-facing push around music, a precursor to iTunes. Unfortunately, my vision was not shared by upper management.

When Steve came back, he had to make quick, harsh decisions to save the company. He was ruthless when determining what would be best for Apple in the long run. He knew that Apple needed to focus on publishing and education long enough to stabilize the company, so, ironically, he cut the music and entertainment group, among others.

The Core of Apple Culture
When my class graduated from the Apple employees’ MBA program, John Sculley told us that we "would be each other’s biggest advocates throughout the Valley." At the time, none of us could comprehend why our CEO would suggest we wouldn’t be at Apple forever. But, of course, many of us have moved on and shared Apple’s culture, as it’s become a part of our DNA.

Here are just a few of Apple’s universally acclaimed and adopted practices:

It doesn’t come from the top down. Whether you’re a team member or a leader, you must answer for your actions internally. This accountability breeds a relationship with the public; they expect to be treated exceptionally, and they are.

•Hire the best
While many corporations specifically hire management who can wear many hats, Apple has insisted on specialization from the get-go. Apple seeks out employees who are experts, yet who also have the capacity to work as part of a cross-functional team.

Especially relevant in the tech industry, Apple’s consistency has lent a simple elegance to every one of its products. No user manual is needed; their products are simple, intuitive, and engaging.

•Excellence above revenues
Apple excellence has relied heavily on not merely realizing what the consumer wants, but predicting what he will want. Apple doesn’t see revenue as its primary goal. The team knows if they back the consumer from beginning to end, revenue will naturally follow.

•Treat employees well
Treat your employees well and they’ll stay on your team, even when other companies try to lure them away. Apple was one of the first companies to pioneer telecommuting and nap rooms, the latter having been adopted by the likes of Google and The Huffington Post. Companies can also offer in-company continuing education programs or provide salary allowances for such programs.

Apple culture runs so strongly and deeply that I could start working there again tomorrow, without feeling I’d missed a beat. There’s no question the business world has changed because of Apple. It transformed itself from a company that had to reinvent itself to merely survive to one that’s so successful that other companies around the globe look to it for guidance and innovation.

Looking for more? Sign up for Fast Company's daily newsletters.

Kelli Richards is the CEO of The All Access Group. Her latest book is "The Magic & Moxie of Apple: An Insider’s View."

[Image: Flickr user Stephen Groeneveld]

Add New Comment


  • Mwood

    Great article. I especially appreciated how you talked a bit about when Steve was gone in terms of both pros and cons.  

  • Julie

    Kelli, thanks for writing such an insightful article.  Regardless of what kind of team we are leading, these are salient points to remember to be successful  Thank you.

  • Mary Agnes Vetell Antonopoulos

    Kelli, thanks for sharing your very unique point of view and bullet pointing some of the best practices. I've struggled around growing accountability with my team, and I think several of your points will help me move that vital ingredient of success forward much faster.  

  • Floyd Earl Smith

    Not many people can hold the whole of Apple's history in their head and make smart, insightful comments about it. Without being either a fanboi/fangirl or a hater! Well done, Kelli. 

  • Sally Richards :-)

    Nice to see what went on before iTunes, I shudder to think how much further they'd be had they kept Kelli on and followed her vision.  Great article!

  • RobertaGuise

    Kelli, your excellent article touches on Apple assets that haven't received much attention, yet are embedded, as you point out, in Apple's DNA

    Looking through another lens, I wonder how much Apple devotees -- Mac "huggers" as we used to call ourselves -- helped employee morale during the dark Jobs-less years. Those were the days before i-anything, and before Apple stores. Apple was Apple Computer, and we were fiercely loyal Mac fans who took the heat from our Windows-using clients and colleagues. We stuck with the company, helping keep the flame flickering.

    It's as if the DNA, like fascia, connected Apple and its users in an infinite loop.

  • Kelli Richards

    You nailed it Roberta -- those of us on the inside in those 'dark days' shared such a strong DNA that I believe it helped pull the company through.  Some of us also held out hope that Steve would in fact return triumphant one day to take the helm; and are obviously so grateful that that happened!

  • Treoert

    I worked for Apple from 1984 to 1996 in many regions of the world (incl Cupertino) and I can really support Kellis points. Interesting is that the article is about the culture in Silicon Valley but could be about any Apple branch throughout the world.

  • Thomas

    Working at Apple currently I can see a lot of those ideals and practices still in place. Apple is a corporation but operates to a bigger degree than most companies as a group of people pushing towards a common goal. Subtle difference but it you think about it, it is there. 

  • Fuckthisshit

    thank you apple for making planned obsolescence an acceptable business practice, fuck you guys and start paying equal axes to filthy bloated river pigs.

  • Nathan Zeldes

    The sentence I love here is "Apple culture runs so strongly and deeply that I could start working there again tomorrow, without feeling I’d missed a beat".

    Company cultures do tend to evolve, and not always for the better. A culture with even the most excellent attributes is no good if it loses its identity as it morphs into something different under pressures of changing times, changing management, or simply growing larger and older. I wish Apple the best in remaining true to itself!