Startup Grind Live With Adam Lashinsky

It's almost time for the Grind to start.  We're here at AOL in Palo Alto and Derek will be speaking with Adam Lashinsky, author of Inside Apple.  Prepare to start hitting refresh.

Derek: Tell us about growing up in Chicago.

Adam: Born and raised in Skokie, Illinois.  His father was from Omaha and was a corporate economist.  He has a sister in London and a sister in New York.

Derek: You didn't become an economist.  What did you want to be when you grew up?

A: He was a poli sci major thinking about law school, but met too many unhappy law students.  His girlfriend worked at the Daily Illini (student paper), so he started reporting from DC over the summer.  He got back to school and fell in love with journalism.  He did a political column and covered things like a protest at the dry cleaners, the government trying to close a local Air Force base.

D:  Did you have a love for tech back then?

A: No.  To this day he's not a techie, per se.  His father insisted he take some business classes and his first job was as a general business reporter.  He covered some tech in Chicago and got typecast.  He considers himself a BUSINESS journalist who happens to cover tech.

D: What did you do in Tokyo?

A: He won a Henry Luce scholarship.  A work fellowship for people without work experience in Asia.  He worked at the English language edition of the equivalent to the Wall Street Journal.

D: What makes for a great journalist?

A: It's the reporting he loves, but the craft of long form journalism was something he had to work at.

D: How has the news cycle changed?

A: When he worked on TheStreet.com, he didn't watch CNBC.  He thought it was too much noise and needed to think on his own.  He's not a habitual reader of tech blogs.  He doesn't need to know every little thing.  He needs to be able to analyze on his own.  There's a pendulum.  Before there were blogs, there were newsletters -- from crackpots to thousand dollar finance newsletters.  Blogs just replaced the gamut of newsletter.

D: What's the evolution of the magazine?

A:  Probably print will eventually end, but journalism and storytelling won't.

D: What publications do you read and respect?

A:  "I love the Onion."  SF Chronicle, WSJ both in print (then forward things online to friends), New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Economist.  He likes newspapers, but he'll suffer through it if they go away.

D: Twitter giveaway - @startupgrind and @ringcentral

D: Let's talk about the book.  The process of coming up with the idea.

A:  2 origins.  He wasn't the Apple guy for Fortune.  One of his editors asked him who the next CEO would be if Jobs died.  The editor hadn't heard of Cook, so he did a profile of him.  He's only done 3 other Apple stories.  He ended up doing an "Inside Apple" story about how the company actually operates.  This grew out of a meeting between Jobs and some Time, Inc. editors about Apple's lack of committees.  After the article came out he sold it as a book.

D: What happened after you decided to do the book.

A: It was a hot story, so they didn't put it on the web site.  They sold it on Amazon for $0.99.  Back to the book, the book editor decided they needed to move quickly.  Issacson's book was scheduled first, and they wanted to try and beat it to market.  They also weren't sure how long that Jobs had left.  Part of last summer was additional reporting, plus a conference plus vacation.  Rough draft was in September.  He was reporting and writing at the same time.

D: How many people did you interview?

A: He hasn't counted yet.  He thinks he probably needs to.

D: How different was the final version from the first draft?

A: About like the first draft of a magazine article.  Mostly intact, but certain chapters were missing.

D: Do you have a pattern you follow for writing?

A: First he procrastinates.  He didn't have time for that with the book.  He went to a University library (it had food and was near his gym).  And late at night.  He wrote it on an HP Latitude laptop.  It's work issued and smaller than a MacBook Pro, so it's easier to carry around.  ("Some fanboys are pissed off about that.")

D: Apple tends to tell people they'll be fired if they leak things.

A: Yes, it's an important part of the Apple culture.  Apple people are really good at keeping secrets.

D: To the point its obnoxious to talk with them.

A: He doesn't disagree that it's obnoxious, but he respects that they can keep a lid on it.

D: What's the culture there?  Fear?  Indoctrination?

A:  All of those things at times.  Metaphorically, it isn't inappropriate to compare Apple to a military or religious organization.  You see reasons to be proud of your accomplishments and buy in.  It's a choice to work there.  Apple's PR gets made when he compares them to a terrorist cell, but people in these secretive organizations _believe_.  It works because they believe.  If they looked at it as a job, it wouldn't work.

D: Tell us about the Top 100.

A: When Jobs was alive, he'd select the top 100 people in the company as he saw it.  It would cause hurt feelings if certain people weren't included.  And Jobs wanted you to be upset if you were dropped.  They would go to a resort and have presentations about what was coming up at Apple.  Very few people at Apple would know what products were coming up -- first reveals of iPhone, iPad, etc.  Extreme secrecy.  Don't put it on your calendar.  Don't communicate from the meetings.  They swept the rooms for bugs (easedropping).  At Jobs' last one, he prohibited conversations when food servers were in the room -- they might be spies.  He found out through interviewing people and the first person must have assumed it was known.

D: Bringing these guys in would increase loyalty in the top tier?

A: If you were in the audience it was an honor, if you were presenting it was terrifying.  It's a gold star.

D:  At Apple, work is basically life.  It's all business, all the time.

A:Anecdotes become generalizations, but nobody at Apple challenges it.  Apple doesn't think work is fun and isn't to be confused with your social life.  They're very serious.

D: Where does the design focus at Apple come from?

A: He's specifically not an expert on pre- '97 Apple.  There seems to be an attention to design from the beginning or nearly the beginning.  Jobs has been obsessed with design at least dating back to the Mac.  They take the design of the packaging VERY seriously.  Apple is very HQ-centric.  Important decisions are made face-to-face.  It's not a telecommuting culture.

D: Tell the Yahoo story.

A: In '07, when Yang came back to Yahoo, he invited Jobs to speak to top Yahoo execs.  Jobs was asked "what should we do?"  He couldn't tell them what to do, but when he came back to Apple he asked "what are we good at?"  It was the Mac, so they stopped do everything else.  He said he knew what they were good at, but he wasn't going to tell them.  (He thinks he was trying to teach them a lesson about learning.)

D: Is the culture of Jobs saying no to things  function of Jobs or just in the company?

A: It seems to have come from Jobs, but it continues on with Cook.  It's now part of the culture, we'll see if they can continue to execute it.

D:  Apple employees act like wealthy children?

A: To separate employees working on special projects from the rest of the companies -- they act like a startup and have all of Apple's resources.  Like they had rich parents.

D: Which startups are like Apple?

A: I'm not a startup expert, but... Square (hired a lot of Apple people).  What are there so few Apple execs out there?  Some of them are at Nest and Tony is trying to take the design and customer focus, but he's talking to the press and humbler with their channel partners.

D: Looking to the psychology of Steve Jobs, Jobs was legendary for ripping into his employees for the sake of making the best products?

A: It's about the corporate culture, not just about Jobs.  There's only evidence to suggest its been successful.  Is it sustainable is the real question.  Certain people won't put up with it.  Everyone makes trade offs in life.  If Apple people view it as a trade off as a contribution to greatness, then it will work.  The arguments get won on what's best for the customer and he thinks Apple really believes that.  He also doesn't believe you have to be a jerk to accomplish that.

D: Is it successful from a people perspective?  How did effect employees?

A: Anecdotally, you hear about Apple employees being under a lot of stress.  That's a generalization, and lots of companies have that.  But at Apple, you're expected to give your all and it's not a cliche, they believe it.  But they have employee longevity, too.  It is understood not only do you keep secrets, but you'll give your all to Apple.  No "brand of me."  Some people leave and wonder why no one has heard of them.  It's a trade off.

D: Tell us about Tim Cook's role going forward.

A:  It's too early to tell.  He could be a caretaker, but it could be a long caretaker period.  He might be what they need right now.  It's a big company and he's on top of it.  He recently asked Tim what his strengths and weaknesses were.  Cook declined. Then he asked if he was paying Jobs-like attention to design and marketing.  He said Steve spent all his time on that, but he was splitting his time on everything.  He sees no evidence Cook won't continue to be CEO.

D: What will the first big post-Jobs test for Apple?

A: When the first product pops up that had no Jobs input, but Apple plans a long time ahead.  Its hard to say.  When they have the next revolutionary product (like iPad), then the new regime can be judged.

D: Do you think Jobs had specific products in mind for the next 5-10 years?

A: Language is important at Apple.  They talk about their "cadence."  You see that in the predictable schedule of product announcements.  Behind the scenes, they work on things with a detailed, written down plan.  There are deviations, but there are plans.  So Jobs would know about what was coming, but he was also famous for changing things as he saw the need.  Will the new team be as good at that?

D:  It Apple's magic the last 6 months been as strong?

A: He doesn't see evidence one way or the other.  There are opinions, but they need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Apple might be over-analyzed.

Audience questions:

Q: Your book talks about the company as a mirror of Jobs.  I'm not sure what the question was...?

A: His topic was the company, but also answered what the difference was between Jobs and Apple.  Apple University is teaching case studies about Apple's decisions to it's managers.  It was an effort to write down his techniques so people could learn his techniques.  He just doesn't know enough about it.  He hasn't read the documents and would really like to read them.  He thinks they're probably superior to his book.

Q: Do you see Apple's taking stances against things like Flash changing?

A: He should have addressed the "ballsiness" more in the book.  It's part of their culture to make big ballsy bets.  Maybe not as dangerously today, but if the iPhone flopped, they would have been in trouble.  The rest of corporate America spreads the risk around.  Apple doesn't suck.  Will it change?  _At the margin_ things are changing.  they're bigger and more complex  than ever.  Their challenge is to keep making big bets and not screwing up.

Q: Jobs would say no at the last minute.  Who has that power today?

A: He doesn't know.  Presumably Cook has the power, but how will he use the power.  Cook probably isn't the same freakish genius Jobs was.  Cook _probably_ will be more traditional and defer to his experts more often.  There's anecdotal evidence that decisions are being made more slowly, but is it true?  We don't know yet.

Aaaaaaaand... that's a wrap.