During World War II, the South Pacific was a critical theater for battle. Several countries set up bases, airfields, and docks on dozens of remote islands. It was the first time many of the region’s indigenous peoples had ever seen outsiders, let alone the vehicles and machinery they brought with them. Especially impressive were the supplies of food, clothing, medicine, and other goods that were flown in daily. Soldiers often shared these goods with locals and used them to barter for textiles and wares.
But when the war ended, the supply drops ended too. Airfields were dismantled or abandoned, and thousands of soldiers left the islands for home. With a limited understanding of the manufacturing and logistical systems that were responsible for those supply drops, people across the region built impressive (albeit non-functioning) facsimiles of planes, control towers and even headsets — complete with bamboo antennas — in an effort to get the planes and goods they carried to return. They mimicked everything they had observed as closely as possible, even conducting elaborate ceremonies with marching, wooden rifles, and mock uniforms in order to trigger divine gifts from above.
While these activities did bring communities together and create a common purpose during an era of social disruption, they did not yield their main objective of triggering supply drops and the delivery of manufactured goods.
The supply cache of the modern day
For many, Silicon Valley is a magical place. It’s become the epicenter of innovation, not to mention a generator of incredible wealth. It’s home to some of the most successful and influential companies of all time, including 3 of the biggest forces in tech today: Facebook, Apple, and Google. These organizations have built their reputations on completely disrupting the status quo. They do things differently and have reaped incredible profits as a result.
Google’s lavish campuses — equipped with sleep pods, cafeterias with free gourmet meals, multi-story gyms, and video game arcades — redefined the very nature of what a workplace is or could be. With a curving “main street,” a ’50s style dessert diner, shops, and massive video walls, Facebook’s headquarters feels more like an amusement park than a tech office. Apple’s “spaceship” HQ looks like it landed from the distant future with its curved glass and metal and eco-friendly design.
But their shiny buildings and generous perks are only a small piece of the puzzle. It’s the way they do things that has piqued the interest of millions.
Founders and CEOs have been inspired by things like Google’s 20% time policy that gives employees free hours and resources to tinker and develop potentially profitable new products and services.
Others admire Apple’s commitment to secrecy. The public is awed by the organization’s ability to keep the details of their life-changing products tightly under wraps until they’re ready to unveil them to the world.
Many engineers and creatives alike find Facebook’s old mantra of “Move fast and break things” to be particularly inspiring, even as Mark Zuckerberg and company acknowledge some of its negative effects. People like to see a bit of themselves in figures like Zuckerberg and aspire to wield the power and influence he’s achieved at such a young age.
We don’t always understand the mechanics behind how their success is achieved, but as with those airdrops, we see money, power, and influence delivered daily.
Corporate identity theft
“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” — Steve Jobs
With all of the success and power these Silicon Valley companies hold, it’s no wonder others want to be just like them. Companies have gone to great lengths trying to clone every single detail of Facebook, Google, and Apple’s winning DNA, from their generous employee benefits to the look and design of their buildings.
Google-style perks are now standard at most tech companies in Silicon Valley. Catered lunches, community bikes, and open offices are growing more popular, as are unlimited PTO and work from home policies. Dozens of books about how to design like Apple, think like Google, or grow like Facebook are published each month. While some of these copies have been pretty spot on, they’ve failed to yield their intended results.
Theranos tried to copy Apple’s marketing style, unveiling larger-than-life products in spectacular fashion. Elizabeth Holmes, Founder and CEO, borrowed Steve Job’s management techniques, behaviors, and even his black turtleneck. While the “big reveal” technique can help drum up excitement for mobile devices, medical devices that lives depend on face a little more scrutiny.
Shyp followed Facebook’s lead and moved fast, but too fast, and in the wrong direction. It was a victim of its own growth and pivoted to small and medium businesses too late.
Beepi, a used-car marketplace, raised $150 million but burned through it all trying to deliver Google-sized salaries and perks, including a $10,000 couch in the conference room and paid-for phone plans for significant others.
Like the people who fashioned bamboo headphones and wood and vine planes, these companies were able to get some of the aesthetics pretty close. But they lacked the complex internals that actually enable businesses to operate successfully.
Companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have enjoyed meteoric success in large part because they bucked trends, forged new paths, and went against the norm. Copying their roadmap to success would be to ignore the very thing that got them success in the first place.
- Google removed every distraction from its interface. This stood in sharp contrast to the cluttered “internet portals” like Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos that dominated search at the time.
- Apple took a minimalist approach to its product and software design, which set them apart from the Windows OS and PC products.
- Facebook’s uniform profiles and initial .edu-email-only membership requirement were a welcome change from the animated GIF emporium that Myspace became.
“Advantages are rooted in differences. In the asymmetries among rivals.” — Richard Rumelt, “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy”
While many companies have given up differentiation and distinctiveness for sameness, there are plenty of examples of companies that are incredibly profitable and have taken a decidedly different approach. They may not get the same amount of headlines, but companies like Starbucks, Nike, Netflix, and Walmart have paved their own paths to success and built diverse cultures that are in many ways the exact opposites of the big three.
These companies have achieved success on their own terms by:
- Staying true to their culture — While much of the tech world focuses on growth above all, Starbucks has built a relationship- driven, employees- first approach to their business. They even call their employees “partners.” Culture and strategy are completely aligned and have helped the company deliver a distinctive and consistent experience.
- Knowing and serving their audience better than the competition — Unlike Apple, which famously eschews focus groups, Walmart’s culture is all about responding to the requests and needs of their customers. Apple gives customers products they didn’t even know they wanted while Walmart gives them exactly what they ask for. Both approaches are proving extremely profitable.
- Creating their own methods, strategies, and tactics — Like Facebook, Netflix loves to move fast, but they don’t like to break stuff. Keeping the service up and running at all times across all platforms is a key part of their strategy. They’ve developed complex systems to monitor for errors, fix problems, and restore functionality in the event of outages.
You do you
Copying tools, strategies, and turtlenecks will most likely not end up in success. You have to actually do what these companies did — be unique and stay true to your own culture and DNA.
In the “Crazy Ones,” a famous ad Apple put out in 1997, Steve Jobs spoke the following lines:
Here’s to the crazy ones.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them,
glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
While some may see them as the crazy ones,
we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world are the ones who do.
Because there’s so much pressure to conform to norms and copy the big brands, blazing your own trail as a company can be a lot harder than it sounds. It’s helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
- What does my organization do better than anyone else?
- What is actually working for my company and what isn’t?
- How does my team prefer to approach their work?
- Are we empowering people to work the way they want to?
Recognizing that you need to do things differently is only part of the challenge. Your organization needs to have a structure of tools and processes to support that uniqueness. This is often where many companies fall short. They adopt tools that are not flexible enough and too limiting to support different work styles. It’s an overlooked aspect of diversity that could be stunting your organization’s ability to innovate. Giving people the freedom to work how they want can help your org achieve new levels of productivity and operational excellence.
The success of Google, Apple, and Facebook is incredibly inspiring, and there are certainly many pages we can take out of their playbooks. But their buildings, perks, policies, and most of everything else we see from the outside shouldn’t be what inspires us — it should be their dedication to fearlessly disrupt the status quo and do things their own way.
This article was originally published on the Wrike blog.