Apple’s story a lesson for businesses

I’ve written about my admiration for Apple Inc. as a company before, but its climb to the top of the nation’s corporate ladder makes it worth another mention.

Apple’s crowning last week as the most valued company in the United States (based on share price) turned out to be brief. Exxon-Mobil climbed back on top the next day.

But that’s really not the point.

That Apple went from a company considered to be on its last legs in the late 1990s to among nation’s most valuable is an astounding business story, and it’s one that all businesses should pay attention to.

Exxon-Mobil is valuable because it’s a global enterprise based on a product in huge demand with a price that mostly just keeps going up. Despite the push for breakthroughs in green energy products and techniques, the world’s dependence on oil isn’t going to diminish anytime soon.

Oil not only fuels nearly all our vehicles but is the basis for a vast array of industrial products, including fertilizers and plastics.

Apple, on the other hand, isn’t the basis of most of what people want or need, but consumers certainly think that it is.

The company has created that myth with a touch of marketing and a whole lot of style and innovation, as evidenced by a long string of hit products.

There’s the iMac, the iPod and its iterations, the iPhone, the iPad and the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air to name a few.

Despite the popularity of the iPhone, the iPad is my favorite example.

Tablet computers were going nowhere before the iPad. Few people wanted one and virtually nobody was buying them.

Then the iPad was launched last year, and Apple can’t make them fast enough.

The Wall Street Journal noted last week that Apple has sold 28.7 million of them since the launch and that the company claims to have 90 percent of the tablet market.

It can’t keep up with demand and is selling every iPad it can manufacture.

Its biggest competitor, Motorola, has shipped 690,000 of its Xoom tablets and has dropped its price to try to sell them. Note that Motorola will say how many tablets were sent out the door, not how many people have taken them home.

How can Apple create something that nobody thought they wanted, turn it into a major market, and then corner that market?

Part of the answer is that people expect an Apple product to be the best in its category. They look forward to the next Apple product. And whatever that product is, it’s typically cool to be among the first to have one.

Why is that?

Here are a few reasons:

Apple products work pretty well. Most Apple products are simple and easy to use. They tend to function well and be intuitive rather than complicated. You get a sense that the company really works hard at thinking how people use its products.

Apple products are attractive with a strong and elegant sense of design. They are cool because they look cool.

Apple products are rarely the least expensive but are usually the best. When you’re the best, you can charge more.

Small businesses that don’t want to stay that way could do worse than study Apple Inc.

They may not be able to hire the best designers or the best marketers.

But they should be thinking about cool products that people want, perhaps something that they don’t yet know that they want.

And they should be thinking about how to make their products simple and easy for consumers to use.

Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459;

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