Recently, a client was kind enough to share a book on how Steve Jobs’ obsession with simplicity helped drive Apple to be the off the charts success story it is today. As I’ve read and re-read the book, I’ve realized it has many applications to business, investing and life.
Insanely Simple was written by Ken Segall, creative director of the ad agency that partnered with Apple on their most notable campaigns. Ken addresses the challenges of Simplicity through the concepts of thinking minimal, brutal, small, etc. to drive success against the often overwhelming pull of Complexity.
Today, I want to focus on how many of the practices the book describes mirror the methods of Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), the mutual fund company we use to execute our investment strategy.
Distilling choices to a minimum helps maximize clarity. This simple concept is what led the author to coin the “i” in “iMac” when naming Apple’s new product line back in 1997. What seems so simple in hindsight was actually the source of much contention at the time. Steve wanted to call the computer “MacMan” which I think we all can agree turns the stomach on a variety of fronts. The final decision to stay with the remarkably simple “iMac” led to an entire franchise of immediately identifiable products. In addition to their computers, iPod, iPhone, and iPad have all become brands that impact the day to day lives of so many consumers.
At Dimensional Funds, clarity and transparency are also passions. Offering investors the ability to access companies across the globe at a low cost is a big opportunity for Complexity to corrupt. DFA has managed to keep that monster at bay in two ways. First, they offer funds across a very clear set of asset classes that offer the best overall mix for a diverse portfolio without adding unnecessary complexity and risk. Second, they follow a “what you see is what you get” philosophy when naming their funds. For example, when one seeks to add large U.S. companies to their portfolio, it’s not too big a leap to find the DFA U.S. Large Company Portfolio.
Thinking small means swearing allegiance to the power of, as Jobs put it, “small groups of smart people,” to make the best decisions and keep morale and productivity high. With the creative process at Apple, this meant having the ultimate decision maker, usually Steve, involved in the process from the start, and making sure that no one was in the room who wasn’t absolutely essential.
One story told in the book was of a creative meeting where a member of Apple’s marketing staff only loosely tied to the project at hand decided to sit-in. The meeting was underway for just a moment when Steve turned and asked, “Who are you?” A bit stunned, the employee replied with their name to which Steve replied, “I don’t think we need you in this meeting. Thanks.”
Tone and style aside, the point is a good one. Limiting the number of people involved in the creation and execution of an idea to a small, intelligent group of directly involved and invested people can go a long way in getting from idea to execution without unnecessary delay and cost.
DFA began in this same way. Recent graduates of the University of Chicago’s business school, David Booth and Rex Sinquefield decided to put some of the concepts they’d learned from the Nobel-quality economic professors into practice. Started in a Brooklyn apartment, the two kept things simple, small and smart. When constructing their board, they called those same brilliant professors and asked if they’d be willing to lend a hand. To this day, many of the board members at DFA are those same academics. DFA is notorious for hiring the best and brightest and the company’s practices are still largely driven by small groups of smart people.
The products behind Apple’s success are incredibly complex and sophisticated machines. All the incredible result of teams of engineers, scientists and marketers moving towards one goal – Thinking different and keeping things insanely simple.
Ken put it best in the book when he said, “(Apple)’s embraced a concept that has such elemental power, it can successfully be applied to every discipline within the company. What Apple does is beyond difficult – but it succeeds because it is unrelenting in its devotion to Simplicity.”
Similarly, what DFA does on a daily basis is beyond difficult. They analyze and invest in thousands of companies in every corner of the world. They manage more than $300 billion on behalf of institutions and individual investors who access their funds through investment advisors who choose to embrace Simplicity. By having the very basic belief that markets are efficient and companies all over the world will continue to develop, innovate and offer investors fair returns for the risk taken is a concept with equally elemental power and is successfully applied to each and every fund in DFA’s portfolio.
Much like Apple, DFA, and its investors, succeed because of their unrelenting devotion to Simplicity in a world that begs for Complexity to intervene.
Special thanks to the client who shared this book with me. It was a great read and something I plan on revisiting time and again to maintain proper focus on simplicity in business and life.
If you’re interested in learning more about Ken’s ideas on Simplicity in driving success, check out the video below featuring an interview with Ken conducted by TIME’s technology editor. You can also find Ken’s blog here or follow him on Twitter at @ksegall