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Evangelist in Chief: Q&A with Guy Kawasaki
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Evangelist in Chief: Q&A with Guy Kawasaki

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Was Steve Jobs right when he said that?

He was, according to Guy Kawasaki. That is, if you happen to be Steve Jobs, Walt Disney or Elon Musk.

Kawasaki worked for — and learned from — the man himself, Steve Jobs, in the mid-1980s as Apple’s Chief Evangelist. The Macintosh computer was new to everyone, and it was Kawasaki’s mission to spread the “good news.” The product itself, Kawasaki admits, made that task easier: “One of the lessons in my life is that it’s easy to evangelize good stuff, but it’s hard to evangelize crap. If you find something good, it will make your life easier.”

Kawasaki is the pioneer of evangelism marketing, of bringing brand and customer benefit together. Since his time at Apple, he has become a Silicon Valley beacon and true multi-hyphenate. He’s a speaker; an evangelist for Canva, an online graphic design service; the brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz; and the best-selling author of books like The Art of the Start, The Art of Social Media and his newest, Wise Guy: Lessons from a Life.

In an episode of the Outside In podcast, the Chief Evangelist shares funny, heartwarming and insightful stories from a life spent spreading good news to customers. He also shares lessons learned along the way — like the problem with “Steve Jobs emulation mode,” the powerful motivating force of fear and the pure joy of catching the perfect wave.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get the title of Chief Evangelist at Apple?

When I started the Macintosh division in the mid-1980s, Macintosh was not merely another personal computer. It was good news. And evangelism means bringing the good news. We thought Macintosh was good news, that it would increase people’s creativity and productivity. It wasn’t yet another personal computer platform. So, it became more of a movement, a religion. We didn’t want third-party hardware and software managers; we wanted something with fervor and zeal. And so, we coined the term software evangelist and that’s where it started.

You’ve coined the term “second follower.” What is that exactly, and who was that for Apple?

The first followers are yourself, your spouse, your co-founders, your employees — you’re all drinking the Kool-Aid. But it’s the second follower that legitimizes you. Because that’s the person that isn’t inside the tent. And if you can’t get that person, you may not have anything at all.

Whenever we met with journalists and analysts back in ‘83 and ‘84, we positioned Macintosh as a knowledge-worker machine. People would always ask, “What big corporation — not school — is using Macintosh?” And we would hem and haw as if we were trying to narrow it down and decide which one of the 500 examples should we tell you about. Inevitably we’d say, “Well, Peat Marwick uses it.” Peat Marwick was using Macintosh so that their auditors could carry a computer onsite to basically do spreadsheets. That was literally the only example of a big organization who had standardized on Macintosh! But Peat Marwick was the second follower that legitimized everything to come. One of the things we can do in Silicon Valley very well is we know how to fake it ‘til we make it.

Steve Jobs famously believed that you don’t need to worry about what customers want – he was the expert. Was he right?

He was right. There’s two ways to interpret what Steve did. One is that he could anticipate what people would come to realize they wanted and needed. The other interpretation is he made whatever the hell he liked, and he convinced people to like it, too. Either interpretation can work.

But the problem with “Steve emulation mode” is that people on the outside look at that and say, “Well, I’m going to be the next Steve Jobs. I’m not gonna do market research. I’m not gonna listen to anybody. I’m going to wear Levi’s jeans, New Balance shoes, black mock turtlenecks, buy a Mercedes and not register it, drive in the carpool lane by myself, park in a handicap spot and I’m going to be the next Steve Jobs.” No, you won’t. You’ll just be an asshole.

The hard part is not the part of the Steve-emulation externalities. It’s the vision and genius that he possessed. In American business there’s been Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk. That’s it. I mean, ever! You meet with these tech startup CEOs who are launching Tinder for old people and they say, “I’m a visionary in dating and social media. Swipe left on your grandma.” … I’m like, give me a break.

Your new book, “Wise Guy,” is full of so many wonderful personal lessons. One is the importance of tough teachers. What have they taught you?

I had an English teacher in high school, and when you wrote an essay he would circle where you didn’t put a comma, you split an infinitive, you used the passive voice. You’d have to write the mistake. You’d have to write the rule that you broke. Then you’d have to rewrite the mistake. It was a 3-step process. Every time! That got tiring after a while, but I was really learning how to write. At the time it was a major pain in the ass. I hated it. But now I look back and think, That’s the person who taught me the most.

Steve Jobs is also in that category. His idea of HR was to rip you in front of all your peers. He wasn’t pulling you aside and saying, “Let’s talk about goals we can agree on, and let’s focus on the positive aspects of your professionalism and career.” He would just rip you! I lived in tremendous fear of being ripped publicly. Contrary to every HR concept you’ve probably ever been taught, fear is a very powerful motivating force. It made us do some of the best work of our lives at Apple. I’m not saying fear is the only way to go, but it can work. I was deathly afraid of being embarrassed.

People tend to forget that leaders should have a degree of humility, that they’re all serving their customers. You’ve got a wonderful story about that that involves Sir Richard Branson.

Richard and I were in Moscow, of all places, and he comes into the speaker room and asks me if I fly on Virgin. I said, “Richard, I’m United Airlines Global Service. I don’t know how you get to be Global Service, but I don’t want to jeopardize it.” After I said that, he basically got down on his knees and started polishing my shoes with his jacket. I have a picture of this in the book. I sat there and thought, This guy owns an island. He’s a knight, a billionaire, et cetera. And he’s on his knees so that one more person flies on Virgin. Ever since that moment, I started flying Virgin America. Let’s just say I never saw Steve Jobs on his knees, OK? You could make the case that that humility is why he’s a billionaire. He owns his own island because he is willing to do that kind of stuff. I mean, if all else fails get on your knees and beg for it!

It sounds like you’re saying we’ve got a better chance of succeeding as Richard Branson than we have trying to be Steve Jobs.

That’s absolutely true. A Steve Jobs comes along once every 20 years. The odds of anybody being the next Steve Jobs are pretty low. Now, we may disagree that I don’t think you can go to your current customers and say, “How would you like us to revolutionize our business?” Because customers are going to say, “Bigger, faster, cheaper, Apple 2.” That’s where the risk and the vision and the passion and the dumb shit luck comes in. But it takes humility to say, “All right, I want to talk to my customers. They will explain to me how to evolve what we’re already selling them.” I don’t think you can ask them, “How would I make something that will make you forget the Apple 2 and buy this new thing from us?” That’s the more difficult question. That’s the one that takes luck and vision and passion and all the other good stuff.

When people ask about the product rather than the problem to be solved in the customer’s world, that’s when things start to go wrong. But if companies are able to spend some time asking, “What is the problem in your life that needs to be solved?” – that’s totally different than asking how to evolve a product to be slightly better.

I think just the act of asking people is a very tricky thing. When I’m asked a question there are two thoughts going through my head: One is, What’s the answer? The other is, How is this person going to react to this answer? For example, if you ask me what I would like in a car, there’s the answer of what I would like in the car. But then there’s also, what’s the social impact? What if I say I want a V12 that is 600-horsepower? He’s going to think I’m anti-environment, so I can’t really say that. God forbid if you’re in a market research group and there are other people sitting next to you. You could be a guy who’s trying to pick up the girl, and so you try to impress her with: “I want a Prius. I want to be so green.” Also you get paid, so you’re thinking, “I’m going to get paid 50 bucks so I’ve gotta say something intelligent. I want to have a sports car, but that’s not what they want to hear. I better say what they want to hear.”

At Apple, when Steve was there, a “market research group” was the fact that the right and left hemispheres of his brain were connected. That was it. That was the market research.

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