Imagine applying for a position you have no experience doing, for what would become one of the biggest tech companies known, and getting it. Then imagine being tasked with selling an entire vision, both to developers and to consumers, for a product with capabilities never before seen, working more than 60 hours a week to do so. For most of us, this would be a nightmare. But for Guy Kawasaki—the former chief evangelist of Apple, current chief evangelist for Canva, and general marketing guru—it was a dream come true.
On paper, Kawasaki is the classic American success story. He’s earned multiple prestigious degrees, started several innovative tech companies, served as a key contributor and fellow at Apple, and authored 15 academic-level books. Today, when he’s not evangelizing Canva, the online design service, he’s delivering over 50 keynote speeches a year on leadership and brand evangelism to major corporations nationwide.
But how did an ordinary kid with humble beginnings from Hawaii build such a legacy? Sure, his father modeled a can-do spirit that trickled down to Guy, but is there something else that made him one of the most successful business leaders today? And what can we learn from that?
As we cover his life, we’ll highlight the characteristics Guy Kawasaki exhibited that fueled his success. Throughout this story, take note of how you can practice these leadership traits in your professional life. We’ll explore:
- Guy Kawasaki’s early life and career path
- The elements that shaped and sharpened his continued success
- What his story teaches us
Starting Out From Humble Beginnings
True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.c.s. lewis
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1954, Guy Kawasaki’s mother was a housewife and his father worked multiple jobs. His family was lower middle class, but through sacrifice and hard work, they made ends meet. In fact, as a fireman, real estate broker, state senator, and government official, Duke Takeshi Kawasaki, Guy Kawasaki’s father, seemingly did it all. Duke’s work ethic and sacrifice taught young Guy Kawasaki that with effort, confidence, and drive, anything is possible. So, without fearing failure and always relying on his instincts, he committed to pursuing his passion throughout his whole career.
Receiving a Top Education
To ensure that Kawasaki received a quality education, his parents made sacrifices to be able to send him to Iolani, a college preparatory school. After graduating in 1972, he went to Stanford. This is where he met Mike Boich, his long-time friend and roommate, who would become a key figure in his career later on. Enchanted by Silicon Valley and the technical innovations of the 70s, Guy Kawasaki dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship isn’t a course, though, so he opted for a degree in psychology, the easiest major offered, and graduated in 1976.
Kawasaki’s mother and father then wanted him to continue on and follow the path of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or dentist. Despite Kawasaki’s reservations and dream of entrepreneurship, he appeased his parents and attended U.C. Davis to get a law degree. Hating it, he dropped out after two weeks.
Instead, he knew he wanted to pursue his passion: entrepreneurship. Innovation, technology, and creativity were all part of the vision he had for his career. A year after leaving U.C. Davis, and still with his sights set on Silicon Valley, Kawasaki enrolled in the MBA program at UCLA to support his dream.
With three days off each week, though, he needed to earn some money. He met someone from Hawaii who worked with the jewelry manufacturer, Nova Stylings. The company needed someone to help with counting diamonds, so Kawasaki took the job.
Learning Lessons From Counting Diamonds
I attribute a lot of my success in to working in the jewelry business. And that transferred to, believe it or not, high-tech evangelism.guy kawasaki
Kawasaki graduated from UCLA with his MBA in 1979. While most of his peers went on to work at major banks and consulting firms (like Lehman Brothers and Wells Fargo), Kawasaki accepted a full-time job with Nova Stylings in downtown Los Angeles. While working there for five years, he learned the art of product selling from CEO Marty Gruber and his colleagues in the jewelry business. Here, Kawasaki learned customers can tell real from fake, and that if you want to sell, you have to be authentic.
In an interview, Kawasaki says: “That experience taught me how to sell . . . and that life skill of selling has been so useful for the rest of my life. And I think when you come right down to it, there’s only two functions in life: you’re either selling or making. If you can’t sell, you better be able to make. And if you can’t make, you better be able to sell. Pick one.”
With his psychology degree, an MBA, and expertise in sales, Guy Kawasaki’s confidence and business success grew. His increasingly proficient ability to blend psychology and communication to sell products, coupled with his natural intuition, would become an invaluable skill that could be applied anywhere. He didn’t have to use fancy sales terms or pushy techniques. He just had to understand the needs of others. And this skill was especially useful in the fast-growing world of technology.
Making a Name for Himself in the Tech World
In the 1970s, anyone who was anyone in business or technology knew about Silicon Valley—a hub for cutting-edge technology startups. The area brimmed with venture capital partnerships, microchip startups, and a general culture of exciting, high-reward innovation. It was a technological revolution, and exactly what Guy Kawasaki wanted to be a part of. He just had to figure out how to get there.
In a Q&A interview, Kawasaki explained: “I was interested in tech stuff, but I wasn’t a technical person. The tech industry was simply divided into two pieces: You either make the stuff or you sell the stuff. So since I couldn’t make the stuff, I had to sell the stuff.”
Following the vision he had for his life, he switched industries and went to work for EduWare Services, an educational software company. But when Peachtree Software bought the company, they wanted Kawasaki to relocate to Atlanta. While many of us may have agreed to move, Guy Kawasaki stuck to his vision and intuition and refused. He knew he needed to stay in California. He trusted that there would be other opportunities in the technology field that would propel him closer to his dream of working in Silicon Valley.
And, he was right.
I don’t know how I got past the C-job filter, but somehow, I did, and so, I became a software evangelist at Apple.guy kawasaki
Around this time, Guy Kawasaki’s former roommate from Stanford, Mike Boich, was working at Apple, and had gotten Kawasaki an interview for a job. He didn’t get it, but several months later, Boich reached out again with another available position: “software evangelist.” Without any experience as a software evangelist, but with a psychology degree from Stanford, an MBA from UCLA, and a little courage, Kawasaki applied. To his surprise, he was hired. Guy Kawasaki’s trust in his own intuition, understanding of people, and self-confidence unknowingly landed him his dream job.
Evangelism, as Kawasaki explains, “comes from Greek words meaning ‘bringing the good news.’ So, where a salesperson might say, you know, ‘Give me $2,500 bucks, I’ll give you this computer,’ we were trying to bring the good news of increased creativity and productivity.”
Despite a lack of formal experience, Kawasaki’s natural ability to connect ultimately made him the perfect person for the job. He not only had to convince manufacturers to buy into the vision and create Macintosh products, he also had to convince consumers that this was the computer they needed. And he embraced the challenge.
Spreading the good news of Apple, he evangelized the ability of Macintosh computers to simplify processes, boost performance, and change lives. Kawasaki believed wholeheartedly in what Apple products were capable of. This passion resonated outward and fostered buy-in. The role of software evangelist, however, wasn’t easy.
“We had a t-shirt that said, ’60 hours a week, and loving it.’ And that might have been low. But you know what? We were on a cause, right? We were on a mission from God.”
Guy Kawasaki’s career at Apple sharpened his understanding of human psychology to master evangelist marketing— knowledge he later took with him to other companies.
Over time, Kawasaki’s interest in writing, speaking, and pursuing other entrepreneurial ventures began to take hold. He didn’t have any formal experience in those areas, either, but getting the software evangelist job at Apple gave him the confidence he needed to explore any path. So, after four years, he left Apple to spread his wings and start his own venture in 1987.
Fast-forward then to 1995, about eight years after Kawasaki first left Apple. The company was in trouble. Experts predicted it would soon fall to its knees, so he returned as an Apple fellow to help resurrect the business. They needed Guy Kawasaki’s evangelism.
In an interview about his second stint at Apple, Kawasaki described the challenges: “Everything you’ve heard, read, or seen about Steve Jobs is true. He was very difficult to work for—extremely demanding. But he drove me to do the best work of my career and I would not be where I am were it not for Steve Jobs. I consider it an honor to have worked for him.”
Guy Kawasaki worked as a fellow until 1997, when he left once more. Retrospectively, he admits in a TV interview, however, that had he not quit Apple twice, he would be “paddleboarding right now, or, you know, I’d be at the Halekulani” and that leaving Apple probably cost him “several hundred million dollars.”
Despite any possible regrets, Guy Kawasaki became one of only nine Apple Fellows recognized for their extraordinary contributions. Due to his work, he will always be recognized as a key figure in the growth, resurrection, and success of Macintosh computers.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
Kawasaki had always been interested in starting new businesses and exploring new pathways. He once said of working with Steve Jobs: “You needed a thick skin, but you also needed a thick brain. Because, you know, if you’re dumb and thick-skinned, you would not have survived at Apple. You had to have both.” Guy Kawasaki certainly had both, and this prepared him for becoming an entrepreneur.
It started with ACIUS, a Macintosh database company he founded in 1987. ACIUS published a database called 4th Dimension, which is still used today. After ACIUS, Kawasaki wanted to do more writing, consulting, and speaking. He would write several articles for Forbes, MacUser, and Macworld before creating Fog City Software in 1989. Kawasaki then returned to Apple a second time, as a fellow, in 1995.
When Kawasaki left Apple once again in 1997, he started Garage.com, an angel investor matchmaking business. He worked with Garage until 2004. Then he started Alltop (“all topics”). Essentially an early version of a hashtag search model, Alltop pulled RSS aggregate feeds by topics (like photography, social media, etc.) and organized them into categories for readers.
By the early 2000s, Guy Kawasaki was a seasoned entrepreneur. His hunger for innovation, his technical curiosity, and fearless ambition propelled him even further toward success. But regardless of if his businesses succeeded or failed, his ability to connect with people and communicate always got investors and partners on board. He had mastered the art of selling a vision, a product, and himself.
Transitioning to the Corporate World
Guy Kawasaki’s journey of success soon led him to more corporate roles. After running Alltop, he became a special advisor to the CEO of the Motorola Division at Google in 2013. At that time, Motorola reminded him of where Apple was in 1998, so he joined to help reinvigorate the brand. Guy Kawasaki now had a deep understanding both of what investors wanted and what consumers needed. He believed that by releasing innovative products, Motorola could compete at the top against other Android phone companies.
Two years later, Kawasaki joined the Wikimedia Foundation as a member of the board of trustees. The Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that hosts Wikipedia, provides the essential infrastructure of free knowledge on the internet. That same year, Kawasaki was also approached by Mercedes Benz USA to be their brand ambassador.
Guy Kawasaki, by this time, had become a highly sought-after businessman. His success at Apple, role at Motorola, and suite of impressive business ventures earned him lifelong recognition in the corporate world.
Macintosh democratized computers; Google democratized information, and eBay democratized commerce. In the same way, Canva democratizes design.guy kawasaki
In 2014, Kawasaki made a comeback to the title “evangelist” by joining the Sydney-based online graphic design startup, Canva. To help the young company democratize design and expand globally, he created an evangelism program that would help them reach new users internationally. Within six months, more than 1.5 million designs were created by Canva users. Soon, with up to 100,000 designs being created every week, Canva had become a major resource for marketers and small businesses.
Guy Kawasaki had applied his lifelong experiences from Nova Stylings, Apple, Motorola, and his business ventures towards the mission of evangelizing Canva. He now had a full toolkit of sales skills, marketing psychology, technology, innovation, and a naturally strong work ethic. In doing so, he established a strong legacy as one of the world’s greatest marketers.
Paying It Forward as a Writer and Speaker
As a chief evangelist, marketing guru, author, and keynote speaker on leadership and success, Kawasaki does all he can to share his business secrets with others. Kawasaki’s passion for speaking, writing, advocating, selling, and connecting with audiences is prevalent in every role he pursues. Evangelism is Guy Kawasaki’s ikigai.
Aside from marketing evangelism, he’s written 15 books since 1987. Some of his most well-known titles include:
- Wise Guy
- The Art of Social Media
- APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur
- The Art of the Start 2.0
- Rules for Revolutionaries
When he’s not writing books, Guy Kawasaki delivers discussions on innovation, enchantment, social media, and evangelism at more than 50 events per year. Apple, Nike, Audi, Microsoft, and Breitling are just a few of his clients for keynote addresses.
On top of this, he has a podcast titled Remarkable People. It currently consists of over 90 episodes and features interviews with leaders like Jane Goodall, Jim Weber, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Gary Vaynerchuk. As the name suggests, he interviews people who have accomplished remarkable things and aims to inspire his listeners to do the same.
Guy Kawasaki Today
Today, Guy Kawasaki lives with his wife (whom he’d met at Apple) and four children in Santa Cruz, California. When he’s not writing, speaking, or evangelizing for Canva, he advocates for the Ponto Plus hearing device. Kawasaki suffers from Meniere’s Disease, which causes tinnitus and vertigo. He uses a Ponto to be able to hear from his right ear, which otherwise has lost 70-80% of its hearing ability. While it’s a challenge he faces, it’s one that he’s tackled with tenacity, just like he’s demonstrated throughout his long career as one of today’s best living marketers.
So, what can we learn from Kawasaki’s example?
He shows us that pursuing more than one path in life is okay. Moreover, he teaches us to take what we learn from all of our jobs and apply them to the grand vision we have for our lives. For example, his experience at Nova Stylings taught him how to sell authentically. At Apple, he learned that working hard and evangelizing could have lasting impacts. His corporate and business ventures further taught him to trust his gut, keep an open mind, and always innovate. Additionally, his persistent and innate patience and passion created his momentum and propelled him further toward success.
If you’re not currently approaching life and work in this way, examine areas and habits you can begin improving. How can you expand and grow? What skills do you have that you’re not using to their fullest, or at all? What positive mindsets can you begin adopting into your daily routine?
For more leadership and success inspiration, check out Leila Janah: A Legacy of Service Lives On. Her example of pioneering social entrepreneurship and commitment to human rights will expand your thinking and promote continued growth.