Information Processing

Can Apple's Corporate Counterculture Survive?

Business Week

January 16, 1984

The great success of Apple Computer Inc. is due to more than just having the right product at the right time. It is also the result of the company's homespun, entrepreneurial corporate culture. And as the personal computer maker launches its counterattack on International Business Machines Corp., the market leader, Apple management recognizes that its most important challenge will be to retain that small-company culture even though its sales rate has zoomed past $1 billion annually.

"What we don't want to lose is the special culture Apple has, even though Apple is going to look a lot different over the next year," says President John Sculley. "Failure for us doesn't mean going out of business," he says, but rather finding that Apple is not "a great place to work any more."

Management experts concur that Apple's culture is a thing apart. "There is no corporation in the world like Apple Computer," comments management consultant Thomas J. Peters, co-author of the best-selling book In Search of Excellence. The informal attire of Apple's youthful staff reflects an underlying attitude that gives far more weight to doing an interesting, important job than to possessing the trappings of power. At Apple, Sculley explains, "small teams doing great things have a higher priority than the hierarchy of management."


This distinctive attitude results in "pure, raw enthusiasm that you don't see anywhere else," says Peters, who is now a consultant to the company. And the enthusiasm translates into a willingness on the part of many of Apple's 4,645 employees to put in extraordinarily long hours. Members of the Macintosh development team wear T-shirts that boast: "Working 90 hours a week and loving every minute of it." Says an admiring John C. Cavalier, who recently joined Apple from Atari Inc. in the post of general manager of the Personal Computer Systems Div.: "The kids that work here, who are mainly in the 20-to-30-year age bracket, are willing to do unbelievable things to get the job done."

The spirit of Apple is mostly a reflection of Steven P. Jobs, the company's mercurial 28-year-old chairman and cofounder. Jobs, a college dropout, brought to Apple a blunt style of communication, a dislike for hierarchy and rules, and a bias in favor of "a small, madcap group of brilliant guys producing something in a corner on a very tight deadline," says former Apple executive John D. Couch. Adds William "Trip" Hawkins, now president of software publisher Electronic Arts Inc.: "Steve used to say that the reason we're going to blow IBM away is because we re unprofessional. 'Professional' was a word he used to spit out like an insult."

Such unconventionality attracted other bright, young people who felt stifled in more traditional companies. "The lack of bureaucracy and of rules was inspirational," agrees Patricia Marriott, who had worked at both IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. as a software engineer before she joined Apple in 1979. At HP, Marriott says that she was told it would take many years to realize her wish to switch from engineering to marketing. But at Apple, she says: "I was asked right away if I would like to be manager for market research and planning."

For all its advantages, Apple's corporate counterculture is not without its drawbacks. For one, the unconventionality makes it harder for the company to sign up customers in America's conservative corporate heartland. "The typical Apple executive finds the conventional data processing manager he usually has to deal with extremely boring," says one Apple insider, adding: "The DP manager in turn often finds his Apple contact brash and hard to identify with."


Apple's hyperintense schedules could also become self-defeating. Sources inside Apple report that poor health has dogged members of the Macintosh team as they worked against the clock in recent weeks. As fatigue sets in, Apple could find its staff -- and its culture -- diminished. "People are getting burned out and are leaving, which is not good," says Roger von Oech, president of Creative Think, a Menlo Park (Calif.) management consulting firm. Already the personal computer maker is becoming more methodical and less frenetic, say many longtime observers. "Apple is changing because many of the people who made the culture have left," comments former Apple executive Couch.

Still, Sculley says that he is determined not to sacrifice the attractive aspects of the culture as he imposes more control and structure on the company. He hopes to strike the delicate balance between creative ferment and discipline "by making the product divisions smaller." But seasoned observers of corporate culture warn that Sculley's task will not be easy. "A billion-dollar corporation trying to act like a $30 million company is just plain contradictory," says consultant von Oech. "But," he adds, "I hope Sculley succeeds." 

GRAPHIC: Illustration, no caption, ANDREA BARUFFI

Copyright 1984 McGraw-Hill, Inc.