Is Apple’s success reproducible? Is their design culture? Is Jony Ive? After years of debate, my friend and I finally had a breakthrough last week. The answer transcends a tidy yes or no — instead, think of Jony Ive as a redwood.
On one hand, of course Apple’s success is reproducible. They’re just a bunch of people in a company trying to make products, same as anyone. Every company has a workforce and the ability to hire talented people. Every company can invest in their future and set a high bar for quality. The playbook is there. Of course it can be copied.
But no, no company really does. I don’t consider any company “design led” other than Apple. Everyone has designers. Everyone has engineers. Everyone talks about quality. Everyone talks about delighting customers. But to date I haven’t seen anyone but Apple reliably have true design courage. It’s all talk.
So anyone could theoretically reproduce what Apple has done over the years, but I don’t believe anyone actually has. Why not? Let’s look to nature to understand what might be going on here. Or rather, what has gone on at Apple for nearly twenty-five years.
Imagine driving into beautiful Marin County, in the Bay Area, and cutting down a redwood to transport to your backyard. You’d take great care to dig out all the roots and do everything possible to transfer the tree successfully. Now, I don’t know much about trees but I’m going to assume this kind of thing is impossible. The redwood wouldn’t survive in its new environment.
This is what would happen to Jony Ive if you sent him to Google, Microsoft, Facebook, or any other company in the world. You could try to make him comfortable, you could try to recreate the environment that grew him, but it wouldn’t work. If anything, it would take another twenty-five years, and in that time he'd fail to thrive. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Jony Ive of 1992 was talented, but he was still young and ineffectual. For years he made little impact at “beleagured” Apple Computer. He was near quitting when before Steve Jobs returned, discovered him, and said “Fuck, you’ve not been very effective, have you?” No, he hadn’t been. The 90's version of Apple Computer wasn’t healthy enough for Jony Ive.
But Jony Ive and modern Apple, the one we know today, grew strong together. The early work was unremarkable, but showed promise. It just took time, lots and lots of time, to build up to something truly great. The company needed Jony Ive, and he needed the company. Over two decades later, here we are. Leaving others to wonder “how can we get some of that?”
Another company could do it. They just have to invest heavily in creating the right conditions. They need to think decades ahead rather than one quarter out. They need to trust in only shipping products when they’re ready, not because a pre-determined date has been reached. And then they need to execute reliably and at a high level of quality. For decades. Think of it as 80 quarterly earnings reports, minimum.
So it’s possible to grow a redwood, at least in theory. All the Jony Ives of the future are already on their design teams right now. Which ones will quit their jobs in frustration, as Jony almost did? Which ones will find a way to become giants? Their destiny isn’t just in the seeds, their raw talent. Reaching these heights depends on the environment employees are put in. And that’s up to the company cultures that can best grow them.