CUPERTINO, Calif. – With a portfolio of smash-hit products and a reputation for innovation, Apple at first glance seems like an ideal place for a young entrepreneur to work before leaving to start the next big thing.
But in reality, the world's most valuable company plays by a set of rules that few other firms can get away with — let alone a start-up. Matt MacInnis learned that the hard way after leaving Apple in 2009 to found Inkling, which helps companies publish content to the iPad and other mobile devices. At Apple, he'd come up in a culture where most key decisions are made by those at the top, and secrecy is valued above all else — but his young company had to move quickly, and it needed press.
"I had a lot of bad habits when I came out of Apple," MacInnis said, recalling his reluctance to speak to the media and feeling like he had to make every decision himself. "It took me years to break them."
MacInnis' experiences illustrate some of the peculiar baggage that Apple entrepreneurs carry with them into the world beyond. The tech industry's most influential company imparts powerful lessons — with an emphasis on design and the customer experience that have bolstered its own phenomenal success and enhanced the prospects of some of its progeny.
But it also seems to hobble the future opportunities for others, leading to this odd but undeniable fact: Apple, a seeming hotbed of creativity, has spawned surprisingly few high-profile start-ups.
For all the entrepreneurs Steve Jobs has inspired, the company he built is not the easiest place to become one. The company's strict code of secrecy makes it hard for employees to make a splash before they leave One Infinite Loop, which can feel less like a part of Silicon Valley than a valley all its own, tech industry insiders say.
But despite their scarcity in Silicon Valley, there is no mistaking an Apple start-up, led by entrepreneurs who idolize Jobs and are carrying his principles forward. Jobs believed Apple would profit from bringing consumers joy, from the thrill of removing an iDevice from its sleek packaging to the wonder of exploring an Apple Store shrouded in a halo of white light.
Apple alumnus Jaron Waldman has concluded modern consumers delight in skipping the store entirely. Inspired by his hectic life as a young parent, he left Apple in 2013 to found Curbside, which lets Bay Area customers order items from retailers such as Target through an app and then pick them up in front of the store.
At Inkling, some aspects of the company culture are a radical reaction against the Apple way — MacInnis strives for complete transparency internally, sharing every detail of the business each quarter with employees, and often delegates decisionmaking.
But he appreciates what Apple gave him: a crash course in corporate America that rivals any MBA, and an eagle eye for opportunity. Arriving shortly after the iPod's release and then staying through the rise of the iPhone, MacInnis watched Apple remake the technological landscape several times.
Five years ago, a trio of entrepreneurs came into the Apple fold with Quattro Wireless, a mobile advertising start-up bought by Jobs. One by one, Andy Miller, Lars Albright and Eswar Priyadarshan spun out of Apple, unable to resist the allure of trying their hands at Silicon Valley's wild start-up lottery once more — but with a keen eye for design.
"We all came out convinced that beautiful, simple design is the essence of a great product," said Priyadarshan, who founded Tasteful, a start-up envisioned as a place where various dietary communities — such as vegetarian, gluten-free, Paleolithic — can come together to make good choices while eating out.
Another principle he took from Jobs' playbook: Don't fumble the product launch.
"You essentially have one shot at introducing people to your product," he said.
In the days before the company's first app, focused on the Paleolithic diet, launched in late April, Priyadarshan was fixated on every detail, from messaging about the app's purpose to timing the grand reveal in the App Store to coincide with a Paleo conference.
Fellow Quattro co-founder Albright left Apple in 2011 to help developers build lasting audiences for their apps, having watched their struggles to retain users at Apple. His company, SessionM, has re-imagined loyalty programs for the digital age, rewarding users who stay engaged with mPoints they can use to shop within participating apps and developing custom programs for big brands.
Albright says his time at One Infinite Loop demystified the iPhone maker's success. He watched Apple executives practice before events and product launches like professional athletes or musicians, never resting until they had perfected every detail.
"It's not just the product genius of Steve Jobs creating something magical," Albright said. "A lot of it is just hard work. That's something every start-up can bring in."
MacInnis, the Inkling CEO, also favors the simple and sleek approach. MacInnis sometimes allows himself to speculate about what the ultimate judge might think.
"I'm pretty sure if Steve were alive today," he mused, "he'd be impressed."