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Saturday, December 29, 2012

When entrepreneurs aren't "the next Apple"

Big company exec-turned-Forbest columnist Steve Faktor posted a funny column Friday that says “Shut Up, You’re Not Apple”.

The introduction is as provocative as the title:
At first, it was funny to hear insurers, IT firms, and startups with no revenues compare themselves to Apple. Since the iPod launched in 2001, I’ve seen hundreds of presentations that liberally use “learnings” from Apple. 1) The word is LESSONS, not “learnings”, my Hillbilly friend. 2) The comparison feels as fresh as that Michael Jackson impression your spouse has been doing since you started dating. 3) Drenching slides (or products) in an iconic brand’s juices won’t transmit innovation, like some benevolent plague. If that were possible, we’d never stop harvesting and packaging Brangelina extract. It’s time for an intervention. Here’s why brands must find their own voice (and scent)…and keep those synthetic Apple fumes from turning into laughing gas.

The ‘why you’re not Apple’ checklist:

I know I’m not alone. We’ve all been to the same Apple-laden meetings…er, orchards. How did those comparisons work out? Did that company become the most valuable in the world? Did that product become iconic and emulated by every company in Korea? Or, did it live and die in its sad PowerPoint tomb.

Using Apple as a model is the business version of ordering jeans after seeing them on Kate Upton. They might not look the same on you. Like Kate, Apple is a unicorn. It defies so many conventions that deconstructing its lessons is silly, unless it’s the last thing between you and a lonely Saturday night at Harvard Business School. To quote my friend and fellow innovator Stephen Shapiro’s book, Best Practices Are Stupid.

It’s not that your company can’t be Apple. It’s that your company absolutely, positively will never be Apple. I’m not discounting your skill or vision. I’m simply acknowledging that Apple’s success is a witch’s brew of leadership, timing, technology, and culture. All those variables can’t be replicated.
He then offers a checklist of factors that it would take to be Apple: a visionary CEO, iconic products, $50b in cash, a million fanboys, and #1 or #2 in most product categories. Yes you can mention Apple in your analysis of the industry landscape, but “as the unicorn in the room.”

As someone who’s studied Apple for almost 30 years, the reality is not just that Apple is one in a 100 million companies: it’s that Apple’s run from 2001 (the first iPod) to 2007 (the iPhone) to 2010 (the first iPad) — will never be repeated in the company’s history. (Or as Faktor put it, “Even Apple won’t be Apple forever.”)

I remember when Neil and I started our company in 1987, we wanted to be the next Hewlett-Packard. Instead, we never got more than 15 employees, a few million in revenues and lasted only 17 1/2 years. Wanting (or posing or emulating) doesn’t bring success: satisfying some need better than anyone else — in a way that’s hard to copy — is what bring success.

When they started in a Los Altos garage in 1975, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak didn’t imagine they would have a market cap bigger than IBM. Instead, they were just trying to bring a better PC to market than any of the other hobbyist-hackers out there. Customers didn’t flock to the Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone or iPad because Apple wanted to change the world, but because they had a product that no one else had.