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Tony Fadell Interview: ‘I see pain-killing products all over, you just have to look differently’

Tony Fadell is most famous for being the man who created the iconic iPod. As his latest book, 'Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making' comes out, he spoke to Nandagopal Rajan on building revolutionary products and the importance of keeping the customer in mind.

Written by Nandagopal Rajan | New Delhi |
Updated: June 5, 2022 8:39:33 am
Tony Fadell, Tony Fadell iPod inventor, Tony Fadell interview, Tony Fadell Build bookTony Fadell, inventor of the iPod and co-inventor of the iPhone, talks about his latest book in an interview with Nandagopal Rajan. (Image credit: Tony Fadell website)

Tony Fadell has worn many hats, from an inventor and entrepreneur to investor and mentor. But he is most famous for being the man who created the iconic iPod — he also co-invented the iPhone during his time at Apple. Fadell’s life journey is not common even by Silicon Valley standards, and that’s why his new book ‘Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making’ is being called an advice encyclopaedia for everyone.

He spoke to Nandagopal Rajan for Express Audio’s Our Own Devices podcast on entrepreneurship, designing for customers and innovation. Edited excerpts below:

Your book has a lot of advice for people in the innovation space and people interested in technology. But what do you think is the biggest reason for somebody to read the book?

Tony Fadell: I wrote it for myself if I was 21 again. If I was coming out of college and wanted to know all the things I had learned over the last 30 years in the technology business. So the audience is high schoolers or university students, new graduates or somebody early in their career. But the audience can go all the way to somebody who might be starting to think about retirement and everybody in between. It’s really an encyclopaedia of mentorship.

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There are many different chapters about helping you build yourself, your career, build a team, a product, a company, business…. It’s those kinds of lessons learnt, and not about technology, per se. When we build something, we might build it with technology, but it’s still built with humans and teams. And those things have not changed over the years. So this advice is timeless. And it works, whether you are building tech for a tech industry or tech for other verticals, or if you are in totally non-tech verticals. It’s about human nature, and how to work together, and how to drive the best from yourself as well as from teams to make sure you achieve your mission and reach your customers.

Human nature becomes a factor in innovation and creation, but is that a very important one? Because it can also be counterproductive at times when teams cannot come together or when the thinking does not align.

Tony Fadell: There’s the human nature of each individual on the team. But there’s also the human nature of the individuals who are your customers. And if you start by looking at the why — why a customer wants the product you are creating, what is the pain you are solving for them, what is the superpower you are hopefully giving them — and making sure you start with what their needs are, and build a story around those things, and making sure the tech marries with it, then it’s much easier to keep your team aligned and understand how to work on those things.

Tony Fadell while he was at Nest. (Image credit: Tony Fadell website)

Too often technology companies take a lot of bits and bolt them together and say, look at this cool new thing. But they really don’t understand how it’s going to impact the customer, and what they are solving for the customer. And then it becomes a lot of discussion and debate about should this feature be in, or should this feature be out? That’s not the way to approach it. You have to approach it with a holistic view of the customer, what you are trying to do, and a story. You will need to tell the story with the technology and marry that together. And this makes it so much easier to understand what you are trying to do and get people aligned. Also have a guideline as you build, because things definitely change. As you see more and more how you build things, maybe certain technologies don’t work or work differently than you expected. And you go back to your story and refine it based on the learnings you have while building it. But you need some kind of guiding light. And that starts with human nature and what you’re trying to do for the customer first and foremost.

It is interesting that you talk about the customer because when the first iPod came up and became such a big rage, customers did not know they needed a product like that. How did you think about actually giving customers the product? You were connecting dots that were not there in the first place.

Tony Fadell: So you start with what are the pains that customers have, and how can you create a painkiller for them, and maybe even make a superpower. The pain for me particularly was that I was a DJ and lugging around 1000 CDs. But another one for the customer was that if they wanted 1000 songs in their pocket, they had to take 100 CDs with them. There were MP3 players at the time, but they didn’t have long battery life, they were too slow to get songs on or off. They didn’t have good interfaces to find the song. So there were so many pieces of that puzzle that needed to be solved.

Ultimately, with iTunes Music Store, you could just download things and not have to take CDs and change them. But the iPod’s number one superpower was 1000 songs in your pocket. That’s where it started. Who doesn’t like music, and who doesn’t like to have more of the music they want with them wherever. This was obviously before the internet streaming services like Spotify, but also before Wi-Fi even existed, right?

Have technology companies stopped thinking like that? Is that why maybe we don’t see those kinds of products come out anymore?

Tony Fadell: I see pain-killing products all over, I just think you have to look differently. Everybody thinks, where’s the next iPod or where’s the next iPhone. Everybody’s trying to look for that flashy personal device that they will take with them, which will transform their lives. Those things don’t come around every year or every 10 years. It takes time for those types of technologies to be developed, and then ultimately deployed in the right fashion.

There are lots of different products solving pains in service. Spotify showed up to me, and that’s a huge change in my life, for how I listen to music. But it might not be a device, it might be an app on a device. We have to remember that it’s not just physical things that change the world.

Do you think the smartphone segment itself has sort of slowed down when it comes to innovation?

Tony Fadell: If we look at everything over time, as it becomes more and more adopted, and we put the latest and greatest technologies in it, it slowly changes over time. Look at your laptop, it hasn’t changed much, it’s more or less the same over the last 15 years. It’s a tool that everybody needs and wants. It changes slightly over time, but it’s not a rebel. You’re not going to revolutionise it. And just like that, your smartphone has all those important feature upgrades. Now we’re into those evolutionary things.

What’s great, whether you are on a laptop or on a smartphone, is that it changes dramatically the way you use it, when you add different applications to it. You get maybe a new sensor or a 3D camera sensor. Suddenly you can have some augmented reality in an app. You could play augmented reality games or something else like that on that phone. Maybe the hardware didn’t change dramatically. But to me, there’s still innovation, it just doesn’t come from the hardware. Everybody wants, like little hardware bits, it’s so fun to do. We are doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s different from when the iPhone was envisioned 15 years ago. We have Uber, delivery services… we have so many more things. And that didn’t require a hardware change. It was just more software that went on top of it.

So again, everybody’s looking for some fancy jewel-like thing that they’re gonna carry with them. That’s not where the innovation is coming from. We have to keep understanding that those things only happen ever so often. This is not going to happen yearly, or even every five years.

Do you think there will be a big disrupter that changes the way we look at technology?

Tony Fadell: I look at my sons. My eldest was born literally weeks before the iPhone was launched. So he grew up knowing the world with an iPhone and then an iPad. My daughter was born eight years later. She grew up using Siri and Amazon Echo. She couldn’t read and write, so she sent voice notes and did voice recognition and all these things. So she has a fundamentally different way of interaction, engaging with say products like an iPhone or a home TV. I see new generations of people growing up and using the same devices we have differently from how we use them. And we will see more smart, intelligent assistants… not voice commands, because it’s really voice commands that we have now. But real voice assistants who can help us and give us proactive feedback on things. That will eliminate the need for screens and other things over time. But that’s going to take years to build. We’re just on the cusp of getting voice commands right now. We will get into more real interaction over the next 10 years, as AI and tools and cloud computing get better.

You have a chapter addressing data versus opinion. Do you think data, and the kind of data we have on all sorts of things these days, will change the way people look at solving problems, especially in the tech space?

Tony Fadell: No. No matter how much data you have, if you are going to create anything revolutionary, there’s not enough data to tell you what to do. And that’s the problem. Almost all large businesses need lots of data before they try something new. They work really hard at finding lots of data or convincing people to give them data to make them look, turning an opinion based decision into a data-driven decision.

When you are designing something revolutionary, the world’s never seen before, I don’t care how hard you work at the data. You’re not going to get it, it’s not going to be there. There will be opinion-based decisions that you’re going to have to make. And then after you ship it, you can get data on those decisions to see if it’s right. But to think you’re gonna get data a-priori on something that’s going to be revolutionary, there’s no way you’re gonna get that. You might get some insights to help inform some of your gut-based decisions. There might be sub-data that helps a little bit, but overwhelmingly, you’re gonna go into the unknown. And that’s what it means to do something revolutionary.

You have had many instances where you have walked out of companies you created. As a creator, is there a point where you say I’m done with this?

Tony Fadell: There are different people who have different ways to work. I work at the tip of the spear. I work at the very beginning of where the new technology and new applications can come together, form those things, work on them for a while, and then I go to a new sphere. I don’t like maintaining, I learned that through doing 18 generations of the iPod. Like sure I could do that. But is that what’s most attractive to me? What is most engaging for me? I did three generations of the iPhone, and I thought that was enough. I did three generations of the Nest Learning Thermostat and a few generations of other products. I love opinion-based decisions. The stuff that’s going to change, and you have to understand and trust your gut and build those stories. It doesn’t become as interesting to me anymore to do those evolutionary stories. That’s great. Well, some people like to do that.

To me, my superpower is in that opinion-based decision and those early days. And if I can’t do enough of that, then I’m not happy. So I move on to something else.

In 2022, what are the pain points that you want to solve?

Tony Fadell: I care about the climate crisis we have. I care about the societal crises and the health crises that we have. So at Future Shape, our investment advisory firm, where we mentor and invest in over 200 companies around the world, we focus on things that can help the planet and help societies and individual health.

We’re working with those companies doing revolutionary things, where they need to learn to trust their gut and move forward on these opinion-based decisions. And we get around them and help them see and work on these innovative technologies to bring real pain killing solutions to the world. I’m hopeful and optimistic because I’ve seen into the future five, 10, 15 years through these entrepreneurs. I can see that we have the technology to solve things, like cancer vaccines, energy savings, etc. That’s what gets me up every day, and I get to have fun.

And the book was all written out of these stories. I have to tell each of these entrepreneurs how to build their team, how to think about technologies and tell stories. I was just writing these things out during the pandemic. And that’s how Build happened. Because that’s real-world experience with real-world entrepreneurs around the world who are dealing with human nature, not just the local problems of where they are in the world.

If there is one technology that will have the most impact on the world in the coming years, what would that be?

Tony Fadell: There are lots of different things. But I think one of the biggest shifts we have to undertake is to go from petroleum-based materials to hydrogen-based materials. In other words, moving the way we create certain things like steel, from petroleum, gas, oil, whatever it is, to hydrogen-based creation of steel and other kinds of materials. That is a fundamental shift. There are things we can do to reduce CO2 and energy generation. But we have to look at the fundamental process we use to create many items in this world. That’s one technology, but it affects so many industries all around. We have to get rid of these inefficient, dirty ways we rely on to make the things we use every day.

We have generations of children who have come in with a lot of technology around them, and that technology is evolving. Do you think they have a better future?

Tony Fadell: These kids have access to information around the world. I grew up, I didn’t grow up with the internet, right. I had to look things up in books and magazines… it was very difficult. Now, any kid around the world can seek out experts. Now, kids don’t just need a computer, they can have a second-hand smartphone given by their parents or whatever, and they can access information to better their world, whatever they want to learn… that has been democratised. Not to everyone yet, but to a much wider scale than when we were growing up, right?

Now, that can also be a bad thing. But it’s a tremendous thing. When they can gain agency, they have control over getting things, they don’t have to go to gatekeepers, they can get a low-cost cell phone service, high powered cell phones, and they can go around and learn.

To me, that is insanely powerful for not just the people who are well to do, but now it’s getting much more democratised. We now have over half of the world with this access… it’s going to be three-quarters of the planet in the next five to seven years. That’s amazing.

And to think that these technologies can do bad or hurt kids, they can do that if they are used improperly. But when used wisely, it is a superpower. I am so hopeful and optimistic to see what this generation of kids will do with the stuff that we built. And they’re going to stand on our shoulders and impress us all with what they can come up with.

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