Never Use Apple as an Example

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Sure, Apple is great, but is it a helpful business example?

Do you read business books? I go through phases, but every time I read a few, I’m eventually reminded of why I stopped: most of them are useless. And dull.

What happens to me is that I stumble across a good one, and I tell myself there must be “more like this out there.” My quest begins, and if I’m lucky with one or two more, I keep going. Eventually, my luck runs out. The law of averages kicks in, and I’m reading tiresome, repetitive, and useless stuff whose main purpose is to sell me a book. (Or as Dave Barry once told me, “the message of my new book is that it’s for sale!”)

So being fresh off one of these business book reading tears, I’ve detected a new and particularly useless pattern: eventually every mediocre business book will use Apple as an example, if not the main or even only example.

And why not? Apple has not just been financially successful; it’s also been highly influential on the culture. Perhaps even more importantly, Apple is really popular among the “right” kind of people, many of whom read business books. To listen to these authors, we should all essentially strive to be Apple in every way, except different of course.

And Apple is a great company on an incredible run. From near-death in the mid ’90s to the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, the staggering rise of Apple and a cultural and financial force has been stunning. When I was first in business school, we were required to buy a laptop computer, but nobody chose a Macbook because everyone assumed that Apple wouldn’t be around much longer to support them! Instead, they’re now the world’s most valuable company. Well, you say “potato,” I say “we couldn’t have been much wronger if we’d been trying.”

But as an example for virtually anyone else to follow, Apple doesn’t work. Most of the practices that make them successful simply can’t be copied by other organizations. Furthermore, we don’t even know yet if Apple can keep emulating Apple without Steve Jobs. They now have resources, practices, and a market position that allows them to do things that you and I simply can’t emulate.

Sure, in broad strokes, you can think more about innovation, being customer-oriented, and placing more value on design, and these are generally good ideas. But if you’re not going to reason from “first principles” as Elon Musk suggests, it’s a pretty good idea to pick a comparison that’s much, much more like your situation than Apple’s. They live in a zip code with a population of one. Even Google, Facebook and Amazon are only Apple-adjacent.

So as inspiration? Sure, think about Apple. As an example to copy? Have a bit more discipline, keep thinking and examining the business world for more specific and practical examples.

That’s good advice even if you’re not trying to write a business book.

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