Build by Tony Fadell: Book Review
An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making
Product Thinking Book Review
Tony Fadell led the incredibly successful teams that built the iPod, the iPhone, and the Nest Thermostat. He also led or was part of other teams that failed just as big. So his new book Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making is now one of my new favorites for building meaningful products. It’s not theoretical, not written by someone who only “shouts at you from the roof and then moves on” as he says. But is advice and lessons from the field (where most of us are).
Overview of Build
Tony’s career was a wild path through success and failure. He started with General Magic, an Apple spinoff, and moved to Philips Electronics. He eventually started his own company, Fuse. Then had a failed stint at RealNetworks before contracting and eventually being hired by Apple.
Even moving to Apple wasn’t smooth sailing, and getting the iPod to success was fits and starts, requiring everything he learned from every other experience previously, the good and the bad.
Of course, we know how successful the iPod and the iPhone went on to be. And the Nest Thermostat as well, though probably few of the stories behind all of it. Which is what Fadell shares throughout the book. Along with all the lessons he learned as he began his career, led teams, failed, became successful, started his own businesses, and eventually created his own billion dollar business.
So let’s dive into a few key lessons.
Follow Your Passion
If you’re passionate about something, do it, even if it’s not immediately apparent what the payoff or point will be. There isn’t a suitable substitute for passion and curiosity, so you need to follow yours.
Fadell describes how he followed his passion and curiosity early in his career, even to the consternation of his parents, who couldn’t fathom why he would join a startup rather than a reputable company.
Even when General Magic failed, Fadell continued to stick to his passion of a personal computing device, and hung tenaciously to it through his time at Philips and after, until he eventually found the right timing and right company. And his passion eventually became the iPod at Apple.
His passion for electronics, connected devices, and world-changing technology continued to follow him around after Apple. And, as he describes it, it wouldn’t let go. Which is why he started Nest.
Through all of his career and through all the devices and products, it was about a passion for the product and the mission.
And when you run out of the passion, move on. Find something else or take a break.
Data can Help, Not Decide
“Everyone wants data so they don’t have to make decisions.”
I wrote about this same idea in Death by Data:
It’s easy to fall into analysis paralysis—gathering data so you don’t have to decide. But as Fadell describes it, some decisions are data decisions, and some decisions are opinion decisions. You need to know the difference. You can’t get hung up on data when you have to make an opinion-based decision. Or you can’t try to get to 100% certainty when 80% is the best you can hope for.
It’s easy, and especially easy now in the world of A/B testing, to say “let’s test it!” It’s a noble sentiment, and we should test as much as we can. But we can’t fall into the trap of trying to test ourselves out of deciding.
I used to have an executive that liked to say “let’s let the data decide” as if the data could decide for us. It can’t. It never will be able to. You have to decide. The data can only inform you.
The book gives the great example of Steve Jobs and the iPhone keyboard. It seems like a no-brainer now, but for those of us living with smartphones at the time, the Blackberry keyboard was dominant. To move away from a physical keyboard went against all the data you could get. Yet Steve Jobs was adamant the iPhone could not and would not have a physical keyboard. It wasn’t a data decision. It was an opinion. And the right one. But it wasn’t until after the decision that Apple could gather the data.
Design Every Step of the Customer Journey
I’ve said it in this newsletter and my other podcast many times—your product will be designed one way or another, so you should be intentional about it.
Fadell echoes this same point in the book. You need to design (think through) the entire customer journey from beginning to end to ensure it is exactly how you hope it will be.
When they created Nest, they did this. From the website to the packaging to the installation to the usage. One key area he tells about is the installation.
When the first users were installing the Nest Thermostat, it took about an hour. That was disheartening for Nest because they didn’t want it to take that long. So they dove in to figure out why it took so long. And they discovered about half the initial setup was finding all the right tools.
Rather than simply look past this, though, they included all the tools with the Thermostat. And some tools users didn’t need in the form of a screwdriver users could keep in their drawer. This not only saved half the initial setup time, but became a nice tool everyone kept in their drawer (we actually still have ours in a kitchen drawer as well).
Fadell also relates a similar story about Steve Jobs and Apple. Most devices before the iPod didn’t come pre-charged. But this wasn’t a good user experience. So Apple began charging all devices prior to shipping. Users could open their new device and begin using immediately. This became the new standard for all devices.
I can’t write about all the advice in the new book Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making. But I highly recommend it to anyone interested in building products. No matter where you are in your career, just starting out or CEO, there is something for you. And not just from someone who thinks they know:
“To do great things, to really learn, you can't shout suggestions from the rooftop and then move on while someone else does the work. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to care about every step. Lovingly craft every detail. Be there when it falls apart and then put it back together. You have to do the job.”
And Fadell has clearly done the job. He’s been successful and failed. And he’s shared all the stories, which is fantastic. Even if you aren’t building the next iPod, you will thoroughly enjoy the ride.
Thanks for an excellent summary Kyle. I just read the book as well and I'm so glad to see you highlighting the lessons here. It has the best single chapter on the value of Product Managers I've seen in a long time, and it's great to see it from the perspective of the CEO.