I helped build Apple during its renaissance in the 2000s. Surrounded by incredible people, I learned the value of relentless focus and of a brand powerful enough to drive consumer trends the world over. It was a phenomenal place to start my career. But it was terrible training for a startup founder.
There’s no doubt that Apple’s contrarian approach has been part of its wild success. It makes sense, then, that many startups try to emulate it. But when they do, they inevitably find that the common wisdom about culture, which Apple largely flouts, is both common and wise for a reason: it works.
In fact, the company’s culture is so misunderstood outside of Apple that even after seven years there I didn’t realize how impossible it would be to replicate it until I’d tried–and failed. It took me years to unlearn these three bad habits as a startup founder and CEO.
From your first day on the job at Apple, you’re reminded how important confidentiality is. Of course, external confidentiality was simple and strict: Don’t talk to outsiders. But Apple also discouraged employees from talking with one another about specific projects unless they were mutually “disclosed.”
Disclosure often took the form of secret meetings and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that employees had to sign. On occasion, I was called into meetings to sign legally dubious but psychologically effective NDAs that reminded me of my obligation to maintain confidentiality around a certain project. Everyone in the room was admonished against discussing its details with coworkers, including our own managers if they weren’t being disclosed.
Needless to say, this wasn’t conducive to open collaboration. In fact, it led to information “haves” and “have-nots.” What you knew demonstrated your position on the totem pole, and refrains of “Are you disclosed?” were less a way to protect information than a way to assert your position.
So when I started my own company, I was afraid to share information openly. I was afraid to talk to the media. I even made early employees sign restrictive NDAs myself! But it soon became clear that the costs of restricting the flow of information overwhelmed any benefits. It’s often said that in startups transparency is key–and it’s true. Without it, you can’t solve problems collaboratively, build trust, or allow smart people to make the quick, critical decisions.
Apple, by dint of its product-design and development methods, has an uncanny ability to predict and accelerate consumer trends. Steve Jobs was well-known for his ability to see the needs of consumers before they themselves could.
Apple, of course, listens to its customers, but during my time there as part of the marketing team, the company viewed focus groups and beta testing unfavorably. New hires would join and suggest focus groups for message testing. And the response from veterans was typically swift and negative: “Apple doesn’t do focus groups.” And indeed, we didn’t.
Soon after starting my own company, Inkling, we learned that sheltered innovation simply wouldn’t provide enough data to guide our development. (And I, dear reader, am no Steve Jobs.) We needed early users, beta testers, and tire-kickers to help us understand our own products. We also realized that, unlike Apple, we couldn’t singlehandedly shape consumers’ perceptions of technology. What’s more, my instincts weren’t always trustworthy. We needed to invite the outside world to help us. Startups, I now believe, need to be open to succeed.
While I was at Apple, tasks were carefully planned and delegated to teams in pursuit of a focused and specific outcome. Complex systems were broken down into work streams with defined end-points. That system was efficient and often ruthless. As an individual, the thinking went, you need to do your job with focus and excellence–there’s little room for your personal interests. If you don’t like that, there’s a line of people around the block ready to take your place.
Depending on your point of view, this isn’t necessarily bad: employees have clear goals and a well understood path to success. But it could become monotonous, especially for inventive types. Genuine, exploratory creativity happened only within certain groups, which were led, while I was there, from the top.
For startups, success often comes more randomly than this. Serendipity helps us discover market opportunities we might miss without it. And startup employees’ curiosity and ingenuity are important assets in that process. I’ve learned that while clear direction is crucial, the unpredictable byproducts of a team’s efforts (call that “luck” if you’d like) that are nice-to-haves at Apple are mission-critical inside a startup. Hackathons, pet projects, and scrappy approaches, all generally frowned upon at Apple, have become key components of how we run our company.
Startups benefit from open communication; basically any press is good press, and any collaboration among smart people might create a new opportunity. Early interactions with customers is critical. And when given enough latitude, individuals are fonts of creativity–that’s why you hired them. But Apple was no longer a startup by the time I worked there, and it hadn’t been for a long time before that. For all its well-deserved cachet, it proved a poor training ground for somebody trying to run an early-stage business.
One thing I didn’t learn at Apple helped rescue me after I’d left it: As with most things, the common wisdom is often the best starting point. But you can’t just internalize it and stay put–you’ve got to iterate from there, and do it right out in the open.
Update: A previous version of this article suggested that, in the author’s view, Apple’s reputed dislike for focus groups and beta testing meant that it saw “open collaboration” “unfavorably,” which is not his belief. This line has been amended.