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Creating Disruption

By Heidi Hackford

Tony Fadell On Building Great Things

Tony Fadell had a hand in creating some of the most influential devices of all time, including the iPod, the iPhone, and the Nest thermostat. He also authored over 300 patents and a new book, Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making. On May 11, 2022, he joined The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern to share hard-won insights about leadership, developing products, company cultures, and career decisions.

Technology Never Stops

Joanna Stern began the lively conversation by noting that the iPod, one if the iconic devices Tony designed, has been declared dead. That’s the nature of the tech industry, Tony said. But, the iPod and the Apple II, that he learned to program on, are cornerstone products that are the reason Apple is the company it is today. Embedded in computing history and in popular culture they will never be forgotten.

Ego vs. Mission

Tony has strong feelings about leadership, devoting an entire chapter in his book to “A*******s,” of which he’s been called one. But he makes important distinctions between the goals of different types of forceful leaders and why they’re necessary for innovation to happen.

Inventor and entrepreneur Tony Fadell explains the difference between good and bad leaders.

It’s all about getting the best result by coaching and mentoring your team. Just like raising kids, they may resist it when you push them to grow, but they’ll thank you later.

Storytelling

Tony invents products without knowing what aisle they’re going to go into. That’s the nature of a disruptive product. Often, notes Tony, for these products you also need a disruptive go-to-market strategy because no one knows how to sell something so new. As the innovator, you need to bring your story all the way to the customer. You must explain to them what pain, or problem, your product solves or the superpower it is bringing to them. While retail chains are just in it for the money, you can build a customer base by reaching out directly to customers. The Nest thermostat is a perfect example.

Inventor and entrepreneur Tony Fadell describes how he marketed Nest.

Entrepreneurs must consider the whole customer journey when they’re designing a new product. They must think about how and where customers will discover it, learn about it, buy it, try it, and how they will support it.

This doesn’t happen as often as it should in Silicon Valley. Tony offers an analogy with Hollywood. To develop a movie, they first start with a treatment, which is a condensed version of what happens, and the audience it is intended for. Then, building on the treatment, a script is produced and modified, with marketing and production closely involved.

But, in Silicon Valley, smart people build things that they think are cool (for geeks), but they never create a treatment or develop the story. When they’re nearing completion, they call in Marketing and ask them to create a story around the new product. But you can’t actually add marketing at the end, Tony insists. You have to create a story right from the beginning so you can ensure that you are delivering the product that matches it all the way along.

Personalities and Cultures

Tony offered insights into dealing with big personalities and company cultures. Both impact the products that a company delivers. It’s important to know the difference between an opinion-based decision and a data-driven decision. Steve Jobs, for example, built stories for version 1 of a product that was based on his opinion. To change his opinion, you had to marshal data and bring in other people to show him why that opinion shouldn’t hold, and he could be convinced to alter it. For later versions of a product, especially once it is out in the market, data drives decisions.

Leaders’ early experiences will create a culture that permeates through the company as it grows and affects the employees and products. Speaking from his own experience, Tony explores the differences he saw between tech giants Apple and Google.

Inventor and entrepreneur Tony Fadell explores company culture.

The bottom line: resource constraints force you to get much better at storytelling and getting the product right before you ship it. This is especially important for hardware products. Getting hardware wrong can sink a company. Unlike software, you can’t ship betas and make revisions once your hardware product is out in the world.

Big Challenges

These days, Tony is focused on solving big problems by bringing innovative technology to industries that haven’t changed in decades if not centuries. He’s investing in and mentoring entrepreneurs at Future Shape who are working to disrupt agriculture, big oil, materials, and more.

Tony is adamant that saving the planet is a crisis we must all devote ourselves to. At the very least, consume less, he says. And, don’t spend your time “lollygagging in the metaverse.” Engage with real people and real issues rather than alternate realities. We have limited capital, resources, and brains, and we need it all to solve this existential crisis.

Though perhaps it doesn’t rise to the level of his commitment to save the world, Tony teases that a future project just might spark his interest. The iPod, he says, shouldn’t be dead.

Watch the Full Conversation

Building Great Things: Innovator and Entrepreneur Tony Fadell in Conversation with The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern | CHM Live, May 11, 2022

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About the Author

Heidi Hackford is the content and curriculum director for the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for leading the development of educational materials focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive and conducted teacher workshops on incorporating digital history resources in the classroom. After moving to Silicon Valley, Heidi directed the start-up of a new foundation promoting wilderness conservation through art.

Originally published at https://computerhistory.org on May 17, 2022.

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