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5 things Tesla should really steal from Apple

To save the electric car, Tesla should take a page from Steve Jobs' playbook.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 10, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 2:07 pm CDT

Is it possible that Silicon Valley is about to erupt in a cat fight?

Recent news revealed that futuristic billionaire Elon Musk has hired at least 150 employees away from Apple and brought them onto Tesla Motors. It’s a move that’s somewhat revolutionary, for a variety of reasons. As Forbes’ Tim Worstall points out, “What Musk is doing with Tesla is exactly what the companies that agreed not to poach from each other were trying to prevent, the bidding up of wages and terms across engineers in the area. And yet as a matter of public policy we want there to be such bidding up. For the simple economic reason that people respond to incentives.”

What Worstall is talking about is a well-known pact between several Silicon Valley giants not to take away each others’ talent. “The background to this is that this is the way that labor markets are supposed to work…capitalists competing with each other for the profits that can be made by employing labor,” Worstall continues. “And it’s that which made that agreement among Silicon Valley companies (Apple, Adobe, Google, and a number of others) not to poach such a repugnant agreement.”

However, don’t expect Apple to let its people go without a fight. Just as it was revealed that Tesla had poached several employees from them, the news came out that Apple had poached several staff members from Tesla as well. And with Apple’s latest accomplishments now in the record books, it seems like a win for them, too, to participate in some healthy competition in a new field. After all, this is Apple: They’re known for nothing if not surprising people.

But is this whole thing a win for Tesla? Although unparalleled in the electric car world, Tesla’s prestige and pedigree has put the company in a rather lonely place. This is why the short answer to this question is yes, taking people away from Apple is a win for Tesla, as it brings them one step closer to finally going mainstream. Moreover, it’s also a win for the future of the electric car. With Tesla taking cues from Apple, the company finally looks poised to bring their unparalleled brand to a wider audience, opening up possibilities for other electric car companies to do so, too.

As for how Tesla plans to do this, they merely have to look up a few sacred rules from the Apple playbook.

1) Innovation

This is traditionally what Apple is known for. Ranked by Fast Company as the second most innovative company of 2015 on their annual list, the website’s David Lidsky writes:

Apple’s history of innovation is defined by the epoch-shifting gadgets it launches at splashy media events—the first iPhone in 2007, for instance, or the Apple Watch last September. And the continued breathtaking success of the iPhone—74.5 million sold in the last three months of 2014, driving the most profitable quarter of any company in history—can overshadow an underappreciated truth about Apple’s good fortune: Many of the company’s most meaningful accomplishments don’t make for particularly memorable stagecraft. That’s because they’re about subtle software refinements that make its existing hardware products more useful.

What does this mean? Basically, Apple has consistently demonstrated that they have the technical know-how to back up their aesthetic appeal. This is key for Tesla, whose own flashy designs have often been called into question in contrast to whether the functionality of their vehicles actually amounts to anything significant. Whether their green ambitions can live up to reality is another point of contention for some, and with Apple’s recent focus on environmental accountability, perhaps taking some of their staff away will even help Elon Musk help keep some his lofty, world-saving promises.

This all remains to be seen, of course, but one thing is for certain: Despite their many faults, Apple’s record on innovation is undeniably impressive, and Tesla is wise to look to them as an influence in this regard.  

2) Integration

If there’s one thing that can be said about the most ardent Apple users, it’s that they commit. For some, diving into the Apple ecosystem means diving in for life. Can you imagine if consumers felt the same loyalty to car brands? Surely, Elon Musk has, and that’s part of why he stole several members of Apple’s workforce away so they could come work for him.

“As the years have rolled on…it’s clear that Apple’s competitive advantage isn’t built on its hardware or its software,” writes Forbes’ Eric Jackson. “Apple’s greatest competitive advantage is its ecosystem. … As time goes on, Apple continues to give more and more benefits to its users who choose to buy Apple accessories with their core iPhone. … While the critics might call it a walled garden approach, Apple looks at it as adding so much massive value to its users that there’s no reason to use any other products.”

Right now, the fact is that despite all of the myriad and amazing advances cars have undergone during the digital revolution of the last decade or so, full technological integration with one’s automobile is still a long way away. In fact, even smartphone/vehicle synchronicity is a lot trickier than most car commercials make it out to be. Make no mistake, though, integration between your car and your technological ecosystem is on the horizon, and it appears that both Apple and Tesla have decided to pick out people from one another’s companies to help them get their first. The challenge for Apple? They’re not a car company, and this is untested waters for them, despite reports that Steve Jobs wanted an iCar years ago. For Tesla, though, the challenge is figuring out what a car with a successful, fully integrated technological ecosystem looks like. Fortunately for Musk, he came to the right place.

It’s unclear right now whether Apple is currently working on a self-driving car to rival Google’s much-hyped driverless automobile or not. But Tesla is wisely betting that with the help of some folks from Apple, there is another way to create a car that drives you—by making one that fits into the technological ecosystem which already dominates your everyday life.

3) Stylization

We’ve established by now that Apple’s designs aren’t the sole reason why the company has been so successful, but when you’re trying to get to the head of the pack, beautiful craftsmanship certainly doesn’t hurt.

“I do think that Apple is still hands-down the leader in the space,” Yves Behar, designer of the fitness tracker Jawbone, told Business Insider’s Steven Tweedie earlier this year. In the same piece, Robert Brunner, founder of the design firm Ammunition and Apple’s former director of design, argued that Apple’s design “continually gets better, and it continually gets more sophisticated, continually gets more refined, and they’re really great products.”

Tesla’s designs are already extremely sleek, but it took Apple years of meticulous tinkering to truly elevate their design style to the iconic status it holds today. Bottom line: As soon as you see an Apple product, you know it’s an Apple product. Tesla is getting there, but they haven’t quite reached that level of instant recognizability yet. However, with the addition of their new employees, they are now one step closer to making the single most distinguished looking electric cars on the roads today.

4) Collaboration

Apple’s culture has changed radically in recent years. Under the guise of CEO Tim Cook, the company has become a more thoughtful, more equable, generally more collaborative place to work. Things looked very different in the days of former CEO Steve Jobs, who ruled over Apple with an iron fist, taking a “my way or the highway” approach. But thanks to Cook’s renewed focus on incorporating multiple ideas and viewpoints, Apple has transformed into a place where the brain works to include the functions of every appendage, not the other way around.

As Bloomberg Businessweek detailed in a profile from last year:

The company Cook inherited was broken up into specialized groups devoted to hardware, software design, marketing, and finance, all working separately and sharing little information with each other; they didn’t need to because the overarching vision resided in [Steve] Jobs’s head. … Collaboration may be a virtue, but Cook insists it’s more of a strategic imperative. Aligning thousands of employees is crucial now that “the lines between hardware, software, and services are blurred or are disappearing.” … The result is only now becoming apparent with services that work across different Apple devices.

It becomes apparent then, that Apple’s collaborative nature works in congress with their focus on integration. So, for Tesla, bringing on Apple employees means an increased emphasis not only on how their products work together, but how their work force comes together to create those products. And if this ability works even half as well for Tesla as we’ve recently seen it work for Apple, then the possibilities for conquering a wider market share could be vast.

5) Determination

Simply put, Apple’s culture fits in perfectly with Elon Musk’s wildly ambitious leadership technique. Steve Jobs was the ultimate prodigal son of the tech world: banished from his kingdom, only to return triumphantly, taking Apple to heights they had never seen before, ones no one ever expected them to reach. However, Tim Cook may be an even more important symbol of this idea. When Cook took over from Jobs, he was undoubtedly viewed as an underdog, forced into the awkward position of filling the massive shoes worn by his predecessor. But if Apple’s record-breaking revenue reports from this year are any indication, Cook is living proof that you are never licked until you’ve had a chance to prove yourself.

“I don’t feel euphoric on the up, and I don’t slit my wrists when it goes down,” Cook told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2013, a year before Apple proved that they were capable of reinventing the wheel once more. “I have ridden the roller coaster too many times for that.”

If the members of the Apple team who Musk poached bring the slightest shred of like-minded “never give up spirit” that Apple has become known for to Tesla, then chances are they’ll fit in just fine. Musk’s own ideas have been called “evangelism” and “speculative fiction,” he’s been referred to as “annoying” and a “flake,” his company has been labeled “ridiculous,” and his products have been called “toys.” Like Apple, what Tesla does well is subverting expectations, even though it’s continually the recipient of a great deal of hate; so is it really that surprising Musk found several kindred spirits at Apple?

Obviously, things could get a lot uglier before this employee poaching is over, but a little healthy rivalry never hurt anyone something Silicon Valley seems to have sadly forgotten by making their “no poaching agreement.” Of course, heavy rivalry can get out of hand quickly and leave plenty of broken dreams in its wake. But as of right now, Tesla is smart to dream big, and they’re smart to look to Apple’s employees to help them do it. 

Photo via Bill David Brooks/Flickr (CC BY-S.A. 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 10, 2015, 11:00 am CST