How to Compete Against Apple … and Win

“Fanaticism is described as redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” — George Santayana

Corporate KarateSmart, technical people have known for a long time why their company, their executives, and their CEO can’t see to fight a winning battle against the competition, namely Apple. It’s a secret that few people want to explore for cultural reasons.

One of the things that Steve Jobs was very good at was understanding the weaknesses of the corporate world. He figured out why Nokia and RIM were living on borrowed time, and he used the structural weaknesses of corporations to the advantage of Apple. I’d like to explore that.

We tend to think of the genius of Steve Jobs as the factor that led to Apple’s success, but we seldom want to face up to the problems competitors have — how they shoot themselves in the foot. It was easier to say, “We can’t win against the incredible genius of Steve Jobs” than it was to say, “We have some serious problems of our own.” Good old fashioned face-saving and hubris keeps Apple’s competitors from making headway.

Here are the factors that, I think, keep companies from competing successfully against Apple.

1. CEOs must avoid the “elevator bundle.” This is a variation of the elevator speech. It’s the practice of being so preoccupied with self and power that CEOs don’t have the time to absorb the important, relevant, crucial details of their business. So they encapsulate tidbits of knowledge into distilled facts that are comfortable and easy to remember, sound authoritative, but which are self-deceiving or self-serving.

In the 1980s, I worked on the U.S. Army’s CASTFOREM combat simulator at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. One day, a general came in to brief some people on our work, and suddenly, out of the blue, claimed that we’d simulated dismounted infantry. In the shadows, we all blinked at each other. Where did he get that idea? Somehow, he’d misunderstood something, rolled some knowledge up, and wrapped it into his quick-response elevator bundle.

It’s a fact that in the corporate world, the higher you go in the hierarchy, the more out of touch the leadership is with the important technical details that determine the fate of moden technology companies. Case in point: “Time Warner Cable CEO Doesn’t Know About Apple’s AirPlay.” I believe this story because in my career, that’s what I’ve seen over and over. And over. How can you keep from having your industry disrupted by a company like Apple if you aren’t even abreast of what Apple is openly doing?

To fight and win against Apple, CEOs need to be involved with their product design and understand the technology of their products and how it compares to the competition. To do that is to understand the choices customers are making at the deepest level.

2. Have Personal Metrics. A CEO has to develop personal standards for what constitutes a good, indeed a desirable product. A product can be designed to look decent and make a profit, on paper, but the CEO needs to be deep enough in his products that he can ask those nagging questions that drive engineers, who’ve been careless or hurried, crazy.

In this story, “A Day in the Life of Steve Jobs,” we learn that Steve Jobs would hang out in the design lab with Jonathan Ive and get a feel for the proposed products. His acquired values would lead him to sometimes say, “This doesn’t feel right to me.” They would talk about it. Perhaps subtle changes were made. Then, when Mr. Jobs appeared in public with his product, he knew what was important to say about it that would appeal to people.

3. Believe in Something. Too often CEO’s are in their job because they’ve shown a knack for business decision making and dealing with people. But unless the CEO has a passion, a vision, for how to make a change in the world, it’s all just boring business as usual.

Apple has shown that if you delight the customer and put their interests first, the money will flow. Tactics and business decisions that maximize the money first and foremost are well known to us, and we merely tolerate those companies as a necessary evil.

4. Delegate Responsibility. No matter how many times we tell them in business school that you can, and should, delegate authority but retain personal responsibility, CEOs get it wrong. Instead, they insist on delegating responsibility but reserving authority to themselves. It’s basic human nature that has to be overcome.

If a CEO’s chief scientist or CTO can’t be trusted to make the right decisions, then find one who can. All too often, a CEO feels that because they make 25 times more money than the average employee that they’re 25 times more qualified to make technical decisions. The CEO’s job is to put the right people in place who can make technical decisions, give them authority, then hold them accountable. Think: winning general, not losing dictator.

5. Ditch the Snark. Here’s the dirty little secret, especially in America. Young scientists and engineers are taught, through movies, TV and SciFi that is appropriate, even desirable, to be a smart ass. When is the last time you saw a SciFi movie with a senior scientist who was both in charge and astute? So much so that no government official had to step in and clean up the mess. (Or make it worse.) There would be no conflict, no drama.

Young engineers have come to be so self-absorbed and so untrustworthy that they’re given very little authority. As a result, the tough technical decisions are, by necessity, rolled up to executives who have no clue about what to to do.

There is no reason why, if you’re smart enough to be a chief technology officer, a chief scientist or a senior engineer why you can’t be smart enough to work well with others and learn to be politically astute. Instead, I hear of too many engineers who rationalize their career failures by calling the C-level executives idiots.

One time, in the 1990s, I won’t say where, my predecessor presented the director of our division with a thick, overwhelming, geeky document outlining why we should ditch all the PCs and go 100 percent Mac. This was long before OS X, and the Mac OS was a mess. The tools and technologies we needed were in the PC world, and Apple’s wasn’t listening to the enterprise. He complained bitterly to me that the director wouldn’t listen to his ironclad logic. He worked himself out of that job, irritating as he was.


To compete against Apple, other CEOs must have a passion and a vision about what they want to achieve. Success will come from well conceived products that they’re a stakeholder in, not from rolling money to the top. Then they must understand those technologies, get involved with them, and become effective spokesmen for their vision instead of just copying Apple. A modern CEO in industries that compete with Apple need to have technical education so that they understand the fundamentals and recognize real technical talent at hiring time.

The technical staff needs to give up the lazy, socially promoted idea that they should be bitter, snarky, and contemptuous of managers. A modern senior engineer or scientist is faced with the same customer environment as the CEO. Accordingly, being observant, politically tuned, amiable, respectful — and trusted — is equally essential for the company to succeed.

When unselfish, visionary, technical CEOs hire those kinds of people for the technical staff, companies that compete against Apple can succeed.


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