Misunderstanding Why Apple Is Successful

August 10th, 2011

Last month, I linked to a post by Ben Bleikamp where he argues that people shouldn’t try to emulate Steve Jobs’s management practices.

It’s a great post and I suggest you read it if you haven’t already. Bleikamp is right, but I want to talk about something underlying what he’s criticizing. There’s a tendency, when a person or company is successful, for others to copy the outward characteristics of their success.

I’m going to use Apple to illustrate this, but you can find any number of other examples.

When competitors realized Apple was selling a lot of MacBooks, they sat back and tried to understand why they were so popular. They looked at the MacBooks and saw pretty, metal-clad computers. So they made computers like this and figured they too would be successful.

They didn’t see that Apple’s MacBooks are not just good looking computers, but were well designed. The unibody design means the computer is rigid and sturdy; the display hinge is dependable; the trackpad is the best trackpad on notebook computers; the screen is bright and beautiful; and the keyboard is fantastic. And, more than anything, they didn’t understand that people are not just buying MacBooks because of the hardware, but because of the integration between the hardware and OS X. They buy them because they are cohesive devices that work very, very well.

When competitors saw that the iPad was selling so strongly, they decided that they needed to sell a tablet device, too, because they thought Apple was selling a ton of iPads because it is a tablet. They didn’t understand that people are actually buying them because the iPad is a confluence of purposefully-designed hardware and software. So they put Windows and Android-powered devices on the market, and sold very few devices.

We can’t make superficial analysis of other people’s success and expect to have their success, too. It won’t happen. You’ll fail every time. You have to understand the deeper reasons for it—market trends they’re taking advantage of, changes in society, their deeper strategy. And then you have to go beyond what they’ve accomplished, because there’s no point in merely reaching parity with your competitors. While you’re busy getting to where they are now, they’ll move even farther forward, and you’ll be perpetually chasing their taillights.

You have to change the game to win. You have to re-define it, so they’re playing on your terms, and are trying to catch up with you. If you’re always playing by your competitor’s rules, you’ll lose every time.