TECH

12.03.12

Apple Branches Out. How’d They Do?

From Android to LinkedIn, former Apple employees are shaking up Silicon Valley. But success at Apple doesn’t necessarily translate into success outside Cupertino.

Apple has long been known for luring the best talent the tech world can offer to its sumptuous Cupertino headquarters. Thousands of bright-eyed programming and design stars have passed through the storied doors. But where do you go from the top? Some of today’s most popular sites and gadgets were spearheaded by Apple brainpower. And it makes sense. A tendency for market-changing innovation along with a taste for aesthetics and simplicity are often apparent in the outgoing employee’s product. Apple veterans are behind such impressive ventures as LinkedIn, Android, and Mozilla. Is there a secret Apple magical ingredient that contributes to this unprecedented success?

Apple’s alumni are an all-star cast, populating the boards and presidencies of many of Silicon Valley’s most impressive companies. Andy Rubin, an early Apple engineer, founded Android, which was later bought by Google. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman was an Apple user experience architect in the nineties. Most recently, in 2010, iPod creator Tony Fadell launched Nest, a smart thermometer that adjusts to your living habits.

Leander Kahney, who runs the website Cult of Mac and has written three books about Apple, says there are strong hints of Fadell’s background in his new creation. “People look at it and think it’s just a thermometer, just a piece of hardware. But the lesson he’s brought to it is that it’s actually more software than hardware, and the same is true of the iPod.”

Evan Doll worked at Apple for six years as a software engineer before leaving to cofound the wildly popular news-aggregation app Flipboard. He says he owes a lot of the success he’s had to his time spent at Apple, particularly the disciplined company mentality he adopted while there. “They manage to balance perfectionism with an extremely pragmatic attitude of ‘We’ve got to ship this out to the real world we can’t just sit here and polish it forever,’” he says. “Within startups there’s no pressure telling you to finish it up and ship version 1.0. So you’ve got to have that discipline.”

Kahney compares the company’s methodology to another industry giant—Google. At Google, he says, employees are encouraged to work on their own innovations within the company, while Apple employs more of a top-down structure. “Google has this internal entrepreneurial culture, wants its employees to act like entrepreneurs inside the company rather than leaving and doing it outside the company,” he says. The potential startup is kept under the Google banner, which benefits the company.

Doll sees the beneficial side of Apple’s razor-sharp focus. “Folks at Apple understand that if everyone is marching at different levels all at once it’s going to be very disjointed,” Doll says. “At a company like Google, that’s almost overflowing with creativity, the downside is that there’s new stuff coming out all the time and you’re competing for a limited amount of attention on the part of your users.” That’s not to say Apple employees are devoid of creativity. Quite the contrary, Doll says. No matter the department, everyone has some sort of artistic side. “You probably go to Burning Man or you built some sort of crazy art installations in your spare time,” he laughs.

Rather than let employees simply run with their own ideas, Apple has chosen a “less is better” attitude, constraint that proved a helpful lesson in discipline when Doll departed the company and encountered a challenge many startups face: a lack of resources. “Apple does a better job than most at saying no to ideas,” he says, which proved good training for his new venture. “If you say yes to every good idea that you have, you’re going to fail.”

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Beth Schlanker / ZUMA Press / Corbis
“They manage to balance perfectionism with an extremely pragmatic attitude of ‘We’ve got to ship this out to the real world we can’t just sit here and polish it forever,’” said Flipboard co-founder and Apple alumnus Evan Doll.

That’s not to say Apple employees are using the company as a revolving door to start their own ventures. Leander Kahney says the company’s sky-high stock value is effectively keeping “golden handcuffs” on its employees, who are hesitant to depart from the top, whereas in the old days there were “tons of startups” coming out of Apple. Doll thinks the company’s retention rate has to do with a dedication to the brand. “Apple more than most companies tends to attract folks who really believe in Apple’s mission, it’s kind of more than a job. People who work at Apple tend to be pretty attached.”

Apple’s recipe for success? A “passion that’s so deeply engrained in the company’s fabric” and “an incredible sense of commitment and drive for perfection,” according to Gabi Schindler, who’s currently Chief Marketing Officer of mobile advertiser Amobee and spent six years at Apple as the senior director of public relations. “We were willing to give whatever it took to make the company a success,” she remembers. Schindler later worked to bring this sense of personal dedication to start-ups she went to work at. “Many of us ex-Apple people have been able to bring this philosophy into new companies and helped them prosper.”

Despite a plush resume, it’s not always smooth sailing after Apple. The most high-profile movement of a high-ranking Apple executive came about a year ago when Ron Johnson, head of Apple’s phenomenally successful retail operations, was hired to take the CEO post at struggling retailer JCPenney. Investors were hoping he could do for JCPenney what he had done for the Apple store—build it into a slick, clean, high-end global shopping destination. But selling sweaters and small appliances, it turns out, is a much different challenge than selling products that essentially sell themselves, like the iPad. Johnson’s plans, which included doing away with sales and promotions, have gone over like a ton of Macs. JCPenney’s same-store sales are off sharply, and the stock has fallen about 40 percent in the past year, as this chart shows.

Doll berates those who think they have a “magic touch” just because they’re Apple veterans. “If I just sat around and said hey I used to work at Apple, pretty quickly people would start to say, well, so what? What have you done since?”