Business Lessons from an Apple Design Demigod

Ken Kocienda is your typical history major turned motorcycle repairman turned Apple design demigod. Kocienda helped put together Apple’s first browser (Safari) in the early 2000s, and then to develop the original iPhone and operating system (iOS). Recalling the intensity of those days in an a16z interview about his book, Creative Selection, he was asked to describe Steve Jobs. Kocienda summed Jobs up in a few words: focus and great products. We can all consider how these two factors affect our own work.


Focus means finding what’s important and then staying attentive to it. The web browser was the key to the future of the computer and eventually the iPhone. Jobs was unrelentingly interested in how the device served the browser on the desktop and then on the phone. When we find what matters, focus is how we keep the theme.


Great products are those that positively stand out from other products. Everything is relative. The iPhone was better than the Blackberry because, in part, you didn’t need a keyboard all of the time. Having more screen space available when the keyboard wasn’t being used opened up the potential experience of the device (there’s that focus again). It was a daring shift, but it proved to be a significant relative improvement. Great products beat mediocre products every time. They’re designed to take that risk. 


In our own businesses, we have our own versions of focus and great products. Clients have needs and problems that we have to be focused on. Their awareness of our attentiveness matters and has actual value. Clients also need relatively better experiences than what they can get elsewhere. This goes beyond tech engagement and lands directly in personal engagement. There is always something we can be compared to if people go looking – it’s our job to preemptively understand the benchmark and stay above the bar. 


Kocienda was a part of a special time in modern tech history. Hearing the stories about what it was like to work under Jobs and innovate in the ways that they did are inspiring. Realistically, focus and great products (and services) are evergreen. While a lack of focus and a poor product isn’t a strategy anyone intentionally sets out on, we don’t have to look far to see it everywhere. Conversely, extreme focus and repeatedly good products at the Steve Jobs level are extremely rare. If we can just aim to be consistently above average in both factors, we can build our own structural advantages through consistently setting a higher standard.


Take a moment and ask the questions: where is our focus? What makes our product/service relatively great? Our answers will tell us what we should be doing next.

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