On June 27th, in an exclusive interview with the Financial Times, Jony Ive announced he was leaving Apple after twenty-seven years to start his own design firm. Was this the next step in a remarkable career — or an indication of trouble at Apple?
Executives leave before the trouble starts. I’ve seen that throughout my career, but I didn’t understand it until I became an executive.
The simple truth is that if you’re an executive, your future career depends your performance — but performance depends on a lot of factors outside your control. You simply can’t afford to stay on a sinking ship, because there aren’t a lot of opportunities out there for the next Marissa Mayer.
I’ve been fortunate to work on a few really special tech projects in my career — some were successful, others went out of business, and many more became trapped as mid-market players, unable to fully realize their ambition.
During that time, especially the dot-com boom & bust years, I saw firsthand scores of Redmond tech companies fail for a hundred different reasons, and that’s when I learned how executive departures work.
Is Apple In Trouble?
The media’s been saying it is since the beginning of 2019, starting with a slew of stories with titles like, “Apple Warned iPhones Sales Are In Trouble”, “Is Apple In Real Trouble?”, and “Apple Really Is in Trouble This Time” back in January.
In Q4 2018, the iPhone had come in 1.5 million units short of projections — and when Apple issued a letter to shareholders slashing its earnings forecast, Apple shares immediately dropped by 7.45% — a $55 billion dollar loss in company value.
By month-end, the media had reached a fever pitch, with headlines screaming “The End Of Apple”, despite Apple achieving over $265 billion in revenue & nearly $102 billion in gross profits in 2018 — over 15% higher than 2017. But the financial pundits had a point: iPhone sales were slowing.
In Forbes, contributor Stephen McBride wrote,
“If you looked at Apple’s sales numbers, you wouldn’t see anything wrong. Since 2001, Apple has seen steady revenue growth….By this measure, Apple’s business seems perfectly healthy. But there’s a secret hidden behind these headline numbers. Despite the revenue growth, Apple is selling fewer iPhones every year.
In fact, iPhone unit sales peaked way back in 2015. Last year, Apple sold 14 million fewer phones than it did three years ago. Apple kept revenue growth only by raising iPhone prices.”
The stories above, along with later stories describing Apple’s growing struggles with weak iPhone sales in China, don’t signal the end for the world’s 2nd most valuable brand, but they indicate that trouble is coming.
The Problem Is Deeper Than Sales Numbers
On June 30th, the Wall Street Journal published “Jony Ive Is Leaving Apple, but His Departure Started Long Ago”, which adds perspective to the Chief Design Officer’s departure.
According to WSJ, Ive “grew distant as the company shifted focus”, and “withdrew from routine management of Apple’s elite design team, leaving it rudderless, increasingly inefficient, and ultimately weakened by a string of departures”.
According to WSJ author Tripp Mickle:
“His departure from the company cements the triumph of operations over design at Apple, a fundamental shift from a business driven by hardware wizardry to one focused on maintaining profit margins and leveraging Apple’s past hardware success to sell software and services.”
What the WSJ is describing is simply a transition from the growth to maturity phase of the business lifecycle, and if true, Ive would have been just as motivated to leave Apple by the company’s changing goals & direction as from any potential financial issues.
Honestly, can you blame him? He’s reached the top of the mountain, and quite literally transformed an entire industry. He has design aspirations outside of Apple’s market niche — and at the same time Apple is maturing as they work to support a massive user-base & established product lines. The WSJ makes it seem like it just doesn’t fit anymore, and it’s not hard to see why.
Jony Ive’s New Venture
After 27+ years with Apple, Jony Ive is leaving to start a new new venture called LoveFrom, with Apple as its first client. In my opinion, Apple has no reason to worry, and in fact there may be a number of benefits that come from this change in role.
Jony Ive has transformed the look & feel of Apple products during his tenure with the company — and set a benchmark for elegance in the computing world in general.
He’s shown the industry that a computer can be much more than the sum of its parts, and done it in a way that’s made Apple one of the most highly valued companies in the world.
Despite those remarkable achievements, his transition to a more independent role will result a shift in leadership & vision that may well usher in new & innovative ideas to take Apple even further. He will remain engaged in some capacity, but there will be change, and that could reinvigorate innovation at Apple in new & exciting ways.
At the moment it’s hard to say exactly what his transition means. As he told the Financial Times, “While I will not be an employee, I will still be very involved — I hope for many, many years to come. This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change.”
That statement could mean a number of things: including that he will remain very much a guiding figure in Apple product design, but from a consulting perspective rather than that of an employee.
In any case, Jony has executed this move perfectly: leaving when business is still good & things are quiet — going out on a high-note just like Seinfeld. Nobody gets hurt, the stock value remains high, and his impeccable reputation remains untarnished. That’s how it’s done.