3 things any company can learn from Apple

March 5, 2012: 7:32 AM ET

Yes, Apple is special. And no, not every company should emulate it. But here are key elements in its playbook other companies absolutely should adopt.

FORTUNE -- The latest installment of Applemania debuts this Wednesday, when Apple is expect to unveil another wonders of consumer gadgetry. The Apple-obsessed world expects an iPad 3. But then that same community was crestfallen not to receive an iPhone 5 in October. (Mere consumers, meanwhile, snapped up 37 million iPhones the following quarter, including the clearly-magical-enough iPhone 4S.) Apple's tease to journalists in anticipation of the March 7 event in San Francisco -- "We have something you really have to see. And touch." -- might just as likely signal  a revamped iPod Touch. Or perhaps we'll be able to fondle an Apple TV remote-control device.

Whatever. The fact is that all eyes once again will be focused on the world's most valuable company. Those eyes have watched Apple's (AAPL) every move for years now, of course. Yet what's remarkable is how little the competition catches on, or catches up, to Apple's ways. Yes, Apple is special. And no, not every company can and should be like Apple, at least not in every way. But there are key aspects of the Apple playbook that other companies absolutely should emulate. Here are three:

MORE: The secrets Apple keeps

Say no more often. Steve Jobs was fond of saying that saying no was harder -- and more important -- than saying yes. Apple said no to making personal digital assistants, in the 90s that is. It said no for years to making a telephone-- until it said yes. Apple refused to focus on selling to businesses. It wouldn't put a USB port on the first iPad. And so on. While not every company can achieve Apple's level of Zen by rejecting seemingly good business opportunities, there isn't a company out there that wouldn't benefit by more rigorously asking itself: "Have we absolutely satisfied ourselves that we have said yes for the right reasons?" How many companies pursue revenue opportunities that any new recruit knows the company is doing to make money rather than delight customers. (An example: Jobs ridiculed the PC industry for years for the margin-boosting "crapware" that comes loaded on a PC. The crap remains.) It takes real courage to say no. But it's not like top executives aren't being compensated for brave action.

Focus your message better. Whatever Apple unveils this week, you can be sure it will be succinctly explained and that the explanation will be summarized in a short, pithy expression. The iPod was a thousand songs in your pocket. The iPhone was the best iPod Apple had made as well as a phone with a Web browser. When Steve Jobs showed the iPad 2 he stressed repeatedly that we were living in a post-PC world. How convenient for the company leading the tablet computer revolution. Other companies muddle their message, in part by allowing multiple spokespeople to deliver it. Apple sharply limits the messengers of its sharply crafted message. The result is that its customers repeat Apple's lines exactly as Apple crafts them. It's the ultimate feedback loop.

MORE: Why Apple will pay a dividend

Make products, not money. It is counterintuitive, and almost unbelievable, but Apple's way is the antithesis of the revenue optimization of the rest of the business world. Of course Apple wants to make money, and of course profits are important. (It registered an astounding $13 billion in profits last quarter.) But Apple doesn't approach a new product from the perspective of how much money it will make. Instead, it dreams up what will be a product its own people want to use, and then its sets about making the product. Only later will Apple apply the typical levers of business -- pricing, market penetration, etc. -- to its product plans. It's similar in tone and spirit to the career advice that wise older people give to inexperienced younger people: Do what you love, and the money will follow.

Adam Lashinsky's book, Inside Apple: How America's Most Admired--and Secretive---Company Really Works, was published in January by Grand Central Publishing. 

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About This Author
Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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