Apple’s Big Lesson for Business Leaders

Looking back on it, when Apple launched the Think Different ad campaign in 1997, it didn’t just mark the return of Steve Jobs, a new philosophy to reignite a beat-down culture, or the beginning of the greatest turnaround in corporate history. It forever changed our definition of what couldn’t be done.

If you have ever doubted for a minute that conforming to the status quo is the most insidious threat to business success, it’s time to wake up and smell the groupthink. Make no mistake. Apple’s extraordinary rise to the top of the corporate world is based on a culture that challenges conventional wisdom.

In PBS’ One Last Thing documentary, Steve Jobs said (I’m doing a bit of editing here for clarity), “The minute you understand you can poke life – if you push in, something will pop out the other side – that you can change it, you can mold it, that’s maybe the most important thing.”

He was right. That is the most important thing. If you dare to think different and have the talent to match, here are nine lessons that fly in the face of what’s passed for common wisdom in the business world for far too long, courtesy of the world’s most valuable company, Apple:

You only need a focus group of one. Apple does not do market research. It does not hire consultants. It does not use focus groups. It’s its own focus group. It invents products its own people want to own. Jobs said they created iTunes because they all love music and thought it would be great to buy online. They were right 14 years ago, and they’re still right today.

You can have your profits and your growth too. Apple’s blowout record quarter was a result of selling more iPhones than ever before at a higher average price, which is incredible considering the product’s been around for over seven years. And now that premium-priced product is outselling competitors all over Asia.

Your product is your brand. Apple is the most powerful brand in the world because its primary focus is on customer experience with its products and services. It makes iconic products users love and are willing to pay a premium for. And by communicating less, not more, and on its own terms, it controls the message better than any company on Earth.

Brick and mortar dominates retail. Technology is transforming how people buy products but the ecommerce growth rate is slowing and only accounts for 6% of total retail sales. Besides, half of those online sales go to brick and mortar retailers. The pundits thought the Apple Store concept was crazy. The pundits were wrong.

It is not better to be first. Personal music players, smartphones and tablets were around for years before the iPod, iPhone and iPad. And while global PC sales decline, Apple keeps breaking Mac sales records. It has essentially erased the entire concept of a first mover advantage. Breakthroughs are breakthroughs whenever they happen.

Own the user experience. Apple products have all sorts of issues. They break ... a lot, in my experience. After all, these are complex products, to say the least. But as a tech-savvy culture we’re used to that. By owning the user experience from start to finish, Apple has raised the bar on customer service and satisfaction. Competitors are following suit.

Ecosystems trump intellectual property. Ecosystems are not a new concept; just ask Walmart, Microsoft, or Oprah. But Apple has built a tightly woven ecosystem of platforms, developers, and product and service synergies that make it hard and costly for users to switch while raising competitive barriers more effectively than patents alone.

Vertical integration is a good thing. For years we were taught to focus on our core competencies and outsource the rest. While Apple focuses on surprisingly few products and uses manufacturing and component partners, it maintains absolute control over every aspect of its operations and ecosystem from chips and software to materials and apps. Apple brought back vertical integration in a big way.

Proprietary kills open source. Proponents of Web 2.0 – the open source platform that brought us social media and user generated content – would have us believe the world is better off as one big happy collective of worker drones. Apple’s success – Microsoft’s too – proves the opposite is true. Sure, Google created Droid, but last time I checked, Google Search, its primary source of revenues and profits, is still proprietary.

One last thing. Think Different.