On the limo ride home from Burning Man, I was talking to a set of fresh entrepreneurs on the problems they were facing. In between updating my Mattermark dashboard and updating my DraftKings lineup, I listened to some of their problems. Classic issues every startup founder has to face.
Competing for top shelf talent. Finding product/market fit. Landing the marquee reference customers.
After letting them yammer a bit, I slammed shut my Air and stared at them for a long moment.
"Guys," I said, "you know the firm's position on this."
One of the ones bogarting the Pelligrino in the back sighed and replied snarkily, "Let me guess Rob. Be more like Apple?"
"Yes," I declared. "You need to be more like Apple."
"But Rob!" one cried, "I don't see how constant comparisons to a $650 billion consumer electronics company is supposed to help my 5-person SaaS play find the traction we need to survive."
"Well, not with that attitude!" I snapped back.
It occured to me on that ride that the problem with this whiny bunch of No people was that maybe they didn't know how to be like Apple.
Well, here's how.
1) BE IN BUSINESS FOR THIRTY YEARS SELLING SOMETHING ELSE
You want the resources and talent to build something as revolutionary as the iPhone? Well have you tried building a long-standing successful business making something completely different for three decades? I can't tell you how many founders tell me they want to have the brand equity and revenue line of Apple but haven't even gone public, staffed a legion of thousands of engineers or opened their own line of popular retail stores.
How about instead of complaining about your limited funding and small staff you do something about it and spend three decades creating a real business?
2) HAVE BOTH ASHTON KUTCHER AND MICHAEL FASSBENDER PLAY YOU IN A MOVIE
I can't tell you how many young founders waltz into my office, prop their Tom's shoes on my desk and then confidently declare that I'm looking at the next Steve Jobs. Before I send them packing back to take their mom's Camry to the next Sand Hill meeting their old man set up for them, I look them right in the eye and ask, "Who played you in the latest overwrought Aaron Sorkin screenplay loosely based on the hastily scribed biography published months after your untimely passing from pancreatic cancer?"
Because if that answer isn't the name of not one, but two, household-name celebrities searching for a fast track Academy Award, I don't know what to tell you. Great companies need gravitational founders and nothing says "I have the charimsa to alter the orbit of a planet" like an eight-figure budget Hollywood think piece.
If you haven't done this yet, don't even ask me to validate your parking.
3) SHIP MILLIONS OF DEVICES THAT PROFIT FROM THE SELF-IMMOLATION OF AN ENTIRE CONTENT INDUSTRY
Why make a product that can ride on technology trends like social, cloud or sharing economy when you can ship a consumer electronics device that makes it easy to play the wealth of pirated premium content circulating on the Internet. Quick question for you, Ivy league MBA hot shot: is it faster to operate on top of an adoption curve creeping north or leverage the demise of the entire global recording industry?
Selling pickaxes at the gold rush doesn't have near the margins of selling shovels at the mass grave of a barely competent industry fitting each other in funeral finery.
4) BECOME THE ANCHOR MANUFACTURING CUSTOMER FOR THE FIFTH LARGEST CITY IN CHINA
You want to know when you've built something people love? When the outsourcing contracts for your product indirectly employ every able body between the ages of 14 and 24 in a city you've never even visited. If Shenzhen purchasing managers aren't selling PDF scans of bills of lading to a tech blog for the equivalent of an entire month of their salary to Forbes editor, you haven't built shit.
Before you fire up another Optimizely test on your email subscription call to action, maybe you should think about what you've been doing with your entire life.
5) IGNORE YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY
Think about the biography Walter Isaacson is going to write about you when you die. Are more printed lines going to be devoted to your spouse and/or children than the Pulitzer prize winning novelist you dated while she was in undergrad? If so, maybe you're not cut out to be the next Steve Jobs.
Being more like Apple means leaving a wake of abandonment complexes in the people you love so strong your way-more-technical co-founder can surf on them.
Being more like Apple isn't easy, but it is obviously the only way your startup is ever going to succeed. I hope these tips help you find the critical path to making the next great company.
You can leave your gratitude with my assistant - I'll probably be too busy to take the call.