Hiring and Growth

Apple’s Secret Sauce: Small Business Lessons from the World’s Largest Company

David Cheng Former Head of Content, Gusto 
Apple’s Secret Sauce: Small Business Lessons from the World’s Largest Company

There have been numerous things written about Apple over the years from its famous founder Steve Jobs, its laser focus on building a few things very well, and its innovative design. Jonathan Ive, the man who leads design at Apple was recently profiled in a New Yorker article, which includes a lot of great gems on what makes Apple so successful. While it may seem odd to pull small business lessons from the world’s largest company, it is because Apple still operates as a small team that makes them so successful.

Ownership mentality

In an article for Time, rock star Bono once said this about the secret sauce behind Apple’s amazing team:

“What the competitors don’t seem to understand is you cannot get people this smart to work this hard just for money.”


Oftentimes, it can challenging to compete with the largest incumbents on hiring, especially if you can’t compete with Google on salary. But what if you’re the world’s richest company? Even at Apple, their employees are not entirely motivated by money. Instead, it’s an esprit de corps that’s driven by a shared ownership of building great products.

At Gusto, we believe in this concept of ownership mentality. Being an owner in the company doesn’t necessarily mean owning equity (although for some companies, it is included). It means giving your employees the opportunity to have an imprint on the company’s product/service and its culture. As a small business, you have a unique ability to incorporate your employee’s ideas very quickly and for them to have an impact.

Go the Extra Mile

There’s a famous story about Paul Jobs, Steve’s father. Paul was a craftsman and taught Steve to craft the backs of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. As Steve said, “He [Paul] loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see.”

Even with Steve’s passing, this mentality persists at Apple. In the New Yorker piece, there’s a vignette about how Jonathan Ive viewed design:

One afternoon, Ive and Bart André removed the bottom panel of a MacBook laptop, revealing black and silver components arranged, with unnecessary orderliness, on a matte black circuit board. Ive looked down happily. “This is such an extraordinarily beautiful thing,” he said.


It’s tempting to cut corners, especially if you’re a scrappy company. But don’t sacrifice quality. Your customers will appreciate going the extra mile. Don’t just deliver what works. Instead, discover what delights! For your business, this could mean giving great service even after the work is completed. There are countless ways to delight your customer; it’s a privilege for a business owner to discover that on their own!

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Room for improvement

Going the extra mile doesn’t mean getting everything perfect the first time. Sometimes you want to release a minimum viable product to test with your customers. Or you may even make a mistake. That’s something that happens at Apple too. When the first iPhone launched, it was “missing” a number of features that were already considered standard in the smartphone space. But as Jonathan Ive says about Apple’s development process:

“Everything we make I could describe as being partially wrong, because it’s not perfect,” he said, and he described the wave of public complaint that accompanies every release. He went on, “We get to do it again. That’s one of the things Steve and I used to talk about: ‘Isn’t this fantastic? Everything we aren’t happy about, with this, we can try and fix.’ ”


What does that mean for your business? Don’t try to be everything to everyone right away (or maybe ever). Eliminate features or services that are not essential to providing your customers a delightful experience. Leverage help from different vendors, whether it’s in design or development. It’s never been easier to be an entrepreneur and there are a host of tools at your disposal.

Updated: November 1, 2019

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