Working backwards – the core of Apple’s strategy – should also be yours


I mentor a lot of very early stage companies. Virtually all have a vision, a team, and a product in some early state of development. But what almost all lack is a target customer. So often I see “solutions in search of a problem.”

In the Forbes article Corporate Mission Statements Don’t Really Matter, Unless You Want To Be A Great Leader by Len Sherman there’s a powerful quote from Steve Jobs:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where to try to sell it. I made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room and I have the scar tissue to prove it. We have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple that starts with what incredible benefits to give to the customer and working with the customer, not starting with the engineers and figuring out what awesome technology we have, and how we can market it.

Why do so many startups ignore this strategy? I believe because most of them are founded by technologists/engineers. They are builders and there is nothing wrong with that. But architects don’t design buildings without clients; engineers should not build products without customers.

Early in my career in technology I noticed that many of the best products were designed to solve a problem the engineer/inventor had. Dan Bricklin, inventor of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, got tired of tediously recalculating business models in his Harvard Business School classes with a calculator, pencil, paper and eraser and invented a better way – the electronic spreadsheet, which enabled users to ask “What If?” quickly, easily, and accurately. Steve Wozniak wanted a computer of his own, but couldn’t afford one. So he designed the Apple I around the cheapest chip he could find, the 6502 and built his own. It was Steve Jobs who had the vision that there were lots of people who wanted to own their own computer.

Today entrepreneurship is all the rage from universities to co-working spaces to incubators/accelerators. Everyone, it seems, wants to be an entrepreneur! How cool to have “CEO” after your name! Unfortunately the lure of fame and fortune is attracting too many camp followers and wannabes. And too few people who want to solve a customer’s problem or create a new opportunity for people.

So here’s my advice for engineers and others who are itching to do a startup: think about your own life, your problems, your hassles, those of your friends. Look first for a problem that can be solved by applying technology, rather than creating technology and then searching for a customer. Technology is an enabler, but people don’t buy technology. They buy what it enables: something that makes their life easier, better, more entertaining: benefits. The classic example I use is borrowed from Reis and Trout, authors of several seminal marketing books. People don’t buy drills for the thrill of owning one or the whirring sound they make – they buy drills to make holes. Drills are a means to an end – the hole. The product of the product. That’s the customer benefit.

Try thinking more like an anthropologist than an engineer. Get out of your comfort zone of going to startup networking events and try spending time with workers – whether they be truck drivers or artisans you’ll be exposed to a new set of customer experiences. And often it’s the outsider, not the insider, who revolutionizes an industry. I doubt Travis Kalanick, founder of Uber, ever drove a cab. But he probably rode in plenty and discovered lots of problems with the cab riding experience.

Once you find that tribe that is struggling with a common problem, then you can go back to the lab and take what you know about engineering and build a solution. That begins the iterative loop between your solution and the customer’s problem.  The more you understand the benefits you can provide the customer the easier it will be to create a product or service to deliver those benefits. You won’t hit the bull’s eye with your first try, but if you are in touch with the customer you’ll hit the target at least and then can work with them to get to the bull’s eye.

So while it seems counter-intuitive, working backwards from the customer experience to the technology is the way to insure you develop a product that customers find useful, and finding it useful, will be willing to pay your for it.

If the business of business is creating customers, per Peter Drucker, the way to create a customer is to start with understanding the customer experience. And if that customer is yourself – that’s perfectly fine!

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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