Start-ups with an Apple flavour

March 17, 2014 4:23 pm

Start-ups with an Apple flavour

By Tim Bradshaw

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Tim Bucher, who worked on Macintosh engineering at Apple, is about to start selling Lyve, his online storage system

Steve Jobs hurled many abusive names at Andy Grignon during his six years at Apple. Mr Grignon internalised the criticism to such an extent that he even had one particularly offensive name printed on his business card there.

“I got yelled at all the time,” he says with a hint of pride. Now, as this former senior manager for the iPhone maker prepares to launch a product of his own, Mr Grignon says his encounters with Apple’s tempestuous co-founder prepared him for anything. “Once you’ve gone through the worst of a Steve meeting, any other meeting – whether pitching an investor or giving a demo – doesn’t feel hard,” he says. “When you are yelled at by Steve Jobs you know you are being yelled at by the best.”

Mr Grignon is part of a select group in Silicon Valley: Apple alumni who have gone on to found their own companies. Whereas many former Google or Facebook employees have launched start-ups, Apple has not been a wellspring of entrepreneurialism.

But Google’s $3.2bn acquisition of smart-home pioneer Nest Labs, launched by two former Apple superstars, marked a turning point. As more people escape One Infinite Loop, Apple’s corporate HQ in Cupertino, California, to start out on their own, each is hoping to take with them some of that Apple magic – and the tough lessons they learnt there.

Few of these Apple seeds have fallen far from the tree. Take Mr Grignon’s Quake Labs, set up with former Apple designer Bill Bull. They are developing an online service, Eightly, that lets anyone create an app that works on any device, without needing to write any code – a sort of App Store for everyone.

Similarly Tim Bucher, a former senior vice-president of Macintosh engineering in the mid-2000s, will next month start selling Lyve, an online storage system that works a little like Apple’s iCloud and iPhoto but lets people manage their images and videos across any sort of device.

Mark Kawano, whose six years at Apple included designing iPhoto and helping external developers to make good-looking iOS apps, has just laun­ch­ed an app for the iPad: Storehouse, a slick, simple service for arranging photos, videos and words into magazine-like stories.

Even Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, Nest’s founders, built their thermostats and smoke alarms much as Ap­ple might: charging premium pri­ces for devices with a design and at­ten­tion to detail that strive to create an emotional connection with customers. “Tony and Matt are the first two successful entrepreneurs I’ve seen come out of Apple,” says Randy Komisar, a Nest board member as an investor at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and also a former Apple employee. “Ap­ple’s culture was not that entrepreneurial. It was a command-and-control hierarchy with Jobs at the top. Matt and Tony were exceptions.”

Many employees tended to stay at Apple for a long time. Most of its executive team have worked in Cupertino for more than 15 years.

“Apple is so good we don’t need to leave to form our own companies,” says Nikola Hu, a former iOS engineer who nonetheless left to develop Moov, a wearable fitness tracker. “Inside Apple, everything would be much faster because they have more resources.”

However, more are beginning to follow Mr Hu out of the door. In her new book Haunted Empire, Yukari Iwatani Kane says “morale has languished” at Apple since Mr Jobs died in 2011, and that resignations have inc­reased as its stock price stagnates and product launches become “more incremental”.

For many Apple refugees, Nest was a first step to their own entrepreneurial endeavour. Hugo Fiennes, who led Apple’s hardware team for the first four versions of the iPhone, worked on Nest’s initial ther­m­ostat before for­m­ing Electric Imp, a platform for con­necting devices to the “internet of things”. Former iPhone software des­igner Mike Matas helped create Nest’s user interface before laun­ching Push Pop Press, a maker of digital books for the iPad.

In 2011, Push Pop Press was bought by Facebook, and Mr Matas now works in Creative Labs, a kind of start-up within Facebook that created its lauded new iPhone app, Paper. “Their bar for excellence is really high and they al­ways strive to really perfect stuff before it goes out,” Mr Matas recalls of Apple. “Anyone who works there takes that with them.”

When you are yelled at by Steve Jobs you know you are being yelled at by the best’

– Andy Grignon, co-founder of Quake Labs

Mr Matas worked on Paper with for­mer Apple colleagues Sharon Hwang, a graphic designer, and Loren Brichter, who after leaving Apple sold an iPhone app, Tweetie, to Twitter and also created the game Letterpress.

Despite the familiar colleagues, Mr Matas says working at Facebook can be very different from Apple. Now it is a question of working with users who generate their own content, he says: “You have to design for other people’s stuff.” While Apple’s teams were silo­ed and rarely met their counterparts in other departments, Facebook is much more collaborative. “A lot of stuff that Paper has developed has gone out into other parts of the company,” he says.

Nonetheless, Paper was developed in secrecy for more than a year before its surprise unveiling in January. That seems more like Apple’s ap­proach than the internet companies’. Facebook and Google often post new services to the web to see how users res­pond, before improving them based on large-scale, real-world behaviour.

Mr Grignon says Facebook’s sometime motto of “move fast and break things” sits uncomfortably with many longstanding Apple employees. “It’s a recklessness, in a way, of engineering. It works well for folks like Facebook but Apple engineers go­ing into companies like that can experience a certain level of frustration.”

He says Apple’s reputation for perfectionism sometimes works against alumni. “When you have a bunch of Apple guys together, [investors] are concerned that we won’t ship until it’s perfect,” he says. “We work very hard to combat that.”

Now, Mr Kawano says, the development of mobile apps has forced the tech industry to raise its design standards: “The minimum viable product needs to be way better than you would do for the web, because the platform is so much higher quality.”

That might suggest former Apple staffers have an advantage when they found tech companies. But Mr Bull says it is hard to generalise about people that emerge from Cupertino. “There is the whole gamut of egotists and humble people.” While many try to emulate Apple’s emphasis on user-centric design, there were no “dogmatic principles” behind its success, he adds.

Even Jobs’s unique approach to management was “just saying the obvious”, says Mr Grignon. “Most people are more polite than that – they won’t cut to the middle of your heart and turn the knife a bit.”

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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