‘Insanely Simple’ by Ken Segall

April 25, 2012|By Hiawatha Bray

Here’s another brief, breezy guide to business success, the kind that arrives on my desk almost every week. Most gather dust. I only cracked this one open because it involves Apple Inc., the most successful company on earth.

But a few pages in, I was hooked. Ken Segall, a former advertising guy for Apple, has written an amusing and revealing book about the company’s extraordinary leader, Steve Jobs, and the guiding principle that made him one of the great businessmen of the age.

Segall tells us that for Jobs, the secret was simplicity. In every phase of the business, he used simplicity as a competitive weapon — Segall calls it “the Simple Stick.” Jobs wielded the stick against all things excessive or nonessential. Whether it was an extra push button on an iPhone, a wasted word in a magazine ad, or one employee too many at a company meeting, Jobs insisted on utter simplicity.

Not exactly a stunning revelation. “Keep it simple, stupid” is an ancient management mantra. But Segall is superb at showing us how difficult it is to follow through. The temptation to complicate things is always present, especially at a company such as Apple, which makes complex devices. Segall shows how Jobs tirelessly wielded the Simple Stick to keep his colleagues in line.

Walter Isaacson’s fine biography of Jobs made much of the man’s often brutal management style. Segall, who took his share of hits, insists that it had nothing to do with cruelty, but with ruthless honesty. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1998, the company was on the ragged brink of doom. Life-or-death decisions had to be made immediately. Never an especially tactful man, Jobs’s harsh candor was now a lifeline for his company.

When he saw work that didn’t meet his standards, Jobs said so, with uncomfortable bluntness, because telling the unvarnished truth is the essence of simplicity in business management. Besides, he didn’t have time for niceties. Jobs was relentless about simplifying every aspect of the customer’s experience. Apple obsesses over the design of its boxes, so that unpacking a new product is easy and pleasant. The company created a global chain of welcoming and attractive retail stores. And of course, there is the seamless beauty and efficiency of the company’s products.

This allows Apple to sell the user an experience, rather than a device. Segall notes that Apple does not base its marketing on the speed of its processor chips or the size of its memory. Instead, it tells consumers: This product is beautiful; it is simple; and it works. Consumers agree, and buy millions of iPads and iPhones. Apple’s rivals fight back with products that, on paper, have more advanced technology. For example, the TV ads for the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer touted its “true multitasking” abilities, which were better than those of the iPad. But the message failed to trigger a stampede to the PlayBook and away from Apple. The complexity of its operating system software was no match for the simple delight of the iPad.

As an executive at the independent ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day, Segall worked closely with not only Apple, but also technology titans such as Dell Inc. and Intel Corp. So his book is full of pungent examples of great companies that cripple themselves through an addiction to needless complexity.

Dell, for instance, makes dozens of laptops and desktops with meaningless names such as Inspiron. Apple once did the same. Remember the Mac Quadra and Performa?

During the years of Jobs’s exile, Apple had built up a complex, confusing product line. After his return, Jobs cleaned house, convinced that computer buyers just did not need that many choices. Consumers responded by purchasing Macs as never before.

Today, the company has more than 10 percent of the personal computer market, twice as much as it had six years ago. Apple rivals like Dell and Microsoft Corp. have been spectacularly successful in their own right, but both have stagnated in recent years, hampered in part by the Byzantine complexity of their business models. Perhaps Apple’s astounding success, and the lessons found in Segall’s tart, entertaining book, will slap some simplicity into them.


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