Unlearning Apple and Rethinking Company Culture: Building an authentic culture at Inkling

Founded by Matt MacInnis in 2009 as a way to make the world a smarter place, Inkling is on a mission to transform how field employees get work done. Calling Inkling Knowledge “a huge advancement over the usual, flat boring PDFs,” Fast Company named Inkling one of the most innovative companies in 2014.

Recently, Matt shared his personal journey at the 3rd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference in San Francisco. What follows is Matt’s story of breaking away from the Apple way of doing things in order to shape an authentic culture at Inkling.

Getting personal

Addressing and engaging an audience of leadership and culture change professionals, Matt described himself as a guy who started a company and is still doing it. “Mine is a personal journey,” he shared, “and in the shadow of Ed Schein, who has spent decades studying the sort of abstractions of culture and how they are applied to large organizations, my company of 150 people and how we build culture is a contrast in that it is very specific and much smaller and, therefore, maybe a little bit more actionable to you guys.”

Matt grew up in a small town in Northeastern Canada where, around age 9 or 10, he realized that at some level he was gay and endured a few tough, emotional years. “I was really bad at following the rules and I desperately wanted to fit in.” A self-proclaimed “black sheep,” Matt got his chance to escape when he was accepted to Harvard. But it wasn’t quite the opportunity for reinvention he had imagined. “There’s a lot of smart people at Harvard, way smarter than me, and for four years I bent the rules in many ways, and tried really hard to fit in. I just wanted to be as smart as everyone else and I kind of wasn’t.”

Fitting in at Apple

Despite feeling like he didn’t quite make the grade at Harvard, Matt landed a coveted position at Apple upon graduation. “I kind of felt like I fit in for the first time,” he said. “Everybody was a nerd; people were pretty smart but not too smart, and I got to be an entrepreneur within this amazing company.”


“It was my first exposure to the business world, so I picked up some habits, some things that made me successful at Apple,” Matt continued, sharing these early learnings:

  • Apple is renowned for its secrecy and you learn how to be a good citizen in that culture of isolation.
  • Apple does not look outside for innovation and you’re expected to come up with ideas to innovate—to find the new technology, that new breakthrough—without talking to customers.
  • Apple expects you to sit down and be high-output. Don’t ask questions. Don’t look for self-advancement; be humble.

Matt confided, “There were side effects that were unintended by how the culture was set up at Apple, but as a fresh-out-of-college young man who desperately wanted to fit in, I acquired these habits and adopted them to my advantage.”

VIDEO clip: Matt talks about being an effective leader by being your authentic self.

Starting up at Inkling

Matt did well at Apple, obtained his Green Card and, after 7 ½ years, started Inkling and a new journey began.

“When you start your own company, you bring your own default settings and apply things that you know, and so I applied the things that I knew.”

Matt articulated, “Imagine a room of 10 people not allowed to talk to each other. Imagine starting a new product from scratch and not talking to customers. Imagine 10 people all told what they had to do and to not ask any questions. It didn’t work terribly well, and to be perfectly honest, it took me a few years to really get that. I was blissfully happy for those years but with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve come to realize something about myself as a leader and who I am in building my own company.”

Matt MacInnis found that a culture that produces results in one environment wasn’t necessarily going to generate the same performance in a new environment. However, once he identified his own core values, it was easier and more engaging to bring them to his growing team.
–Lauryn Franzoni, executive coach and organization development consultant

With the confidence that emerges from authentic self-awareness, Matt offered this advice:

  • Be Transparent: A key to Inkling’s success is the notion of transparency. More accurately, being radically transparent—about everything from financials to how customers are doing and beyond. “Transparency has become the counterpoint to what I experienced at Apple and has driven a sense of belonging and value inside our company.”
  • Be Open and Listen: Listen to the people you serve. Inkling makes it a part of their culture to be humble and engage with people in the community in order to understand their world. “We have built a culture of listening to one another, of listening to our customers and focusing relentlessly on what is true as opposed to what we hope is true.”
  • Equal Point of View: Every person in the organization has an equal point of view on what the company should be doing. For example, in their hackathons, both cross-functional teams and clients are invited to solve new customer problems. As Matt said, “My favorite way to phrase it is love. The idea is that every single person in our company, from the garbage collector to the people who build the software, has an equal point of view on what we should be doing as a company.”

Being Authentic

Direct, articulate and unafraid to speak his mind, Matt has a vision for reinventing how knowledge is shared and is passionate about strengthening Inkling’s culture to power its expansion. He concluded his presentation with these thoughts and aspirations: “I am most excited about my job every day because it helps me learn about who I am, and the greatest reward in life is to figure out who you are and live by those values. Nothing contributes more to being an effective leader of an organization – whether you’re a CEO, or in HR, or a coach, or a manager – than just being your authentic self.”

About Inkling

As more businesses invest in mobile devices to help field teams do their jobs, Inkling Knowledge provides the smart content system they need to deliver mission-critical information at enterprise scale. By arming field workforces with a single version of knowledge, Inkling delivers training and operational guides in an interactive, mobile-first format that engages and empowers employees. The results are increases in productivity and proficiency that operational leaders can measure with in-depth analytics.

We invite your thoughts and comments via LinkedIn and Twitter.

Visit our video library and join the Ultimate Culture Community to view Matt’s full video presentation and receive access to all conference videos and updates on new posts.

Editorial support: Meghan Oliver

About the Author

Avatar photo
Kalani Iwi'ula

Kalani is a marketing professional in the field of organizational assessments for individuals, leaders, teams, and workplace cultures. An advocate for the power of brand and its role in connecting how people think and perform at work, he blends classical marketing elements with modern insights to foster environments where innovation can thrive. A creative catalyst with a strategic mindset, Kalani is accredited in the Human Synergistics suite of assessments.