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Curiosity will teach you how to build: Tony Fadell

iPhone and iPod co-creator Tony Fadell on how to build companies and products that change the world

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Jun 5, 2023 10:53:08 AM IST
Updated: Jun 5, 2023 06:06:39 PM IST

Curiosity will teach you how to build: Tony FadellTony Fadell, Co-creator of iPod and iPhone

Tony Fadell is possibly one of the greatest product designers in the world. You’ll be familiar with the products he’s designed if you’ve ever used an iPhone or an iPod. He has had successful stints at General Magic, and as CTO of Philips, and also set up Nest Labs and launched the Nest Thermostat, which was bought by Google for $3.2 billion in 2014.

With his new book, Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making, Fadell, who is the co-creator of the iPhone and led the team that built the first iPod at Apple, shares leadership and life lessons about taking risks, and thinking differently about solving for some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Edited excerpts from his interview on the podcast From the Bookshelves of Forbes India:

Q. You’ve worked with both Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Google co-founder Larry Page. Could you talk about their leadership and mentorship styles?
Steve was an incredible marketer. He was an incredible salesman to a certain extent. But what he really understood was the customer; [he] got into the mind of the customer and was empathetic with what the customer would need, and want to try to give them superpowers. So, while Steve, early on in his career, tried to be an engineer, he wasn’t an engineer or truly a designer per se, in terms of the physical sense. But when it came to understanding and empathising with the customer, and the customer journey and how to communicate that, he was an absolute master.

And then contrast that with Larry. Larry Page came from science and research. So, he was very much, and he still is, from the part of what’s the basic science, where can we go with first principles, how to push the edge from a research and science perspective. But he wasn’t necessarily an engineer either. So, you have two sets of people on different ends of the spectrum. One a master marketer and storyteller, and the other, deeply planted into R&D and science.

Q. You designed the first iPod in 10 months. What was it like during that time?
I got a call to ask to consult for six to seven weeks to create what would become the iPod. At the time, it was just six months that Apple bought a company called SoundJam. It was the precursor to iTunes. Jeff Robin was the founder. They were trying to connect other MP3 players to iTunes, because iTunes was such a success on the Macintosh. So, they wanted to take music on the go, instead of just burning CDs. And they tried all these different MP3 players… they weren’t working. They were either slow to transfer songs, they had bad battery life, they only held CDs worth 15 songs or if they held 500 or 1,000 songs, they were really big and bulky. My job was to come in—and I had been working on MP3s and digital music products for three years at that point, doing handheld products. Then Apple said, ‘Can we take iTunes on the go?’ with an Apple design MP3 player.

So I took that knowledge, combined with what Apple wanted to do, and over the course of six to seven weeks, created the basic technology and put them together—the screens, the user interface, the form factor, the connectivity—and presented that in a business plan, an outline of all the features, to Steve Jobs in March 2001. I worked incredibly hard over that spring and summer and early fall to show the product at the end of October 2001, and have the first ones ready for shipping in November 2001. So, it was an incredible time, it went by in a heartbeat, but it was three to four years of real work, of researching and understanding MP3, and being at the right place at the right time, to get that call and then put it all together.

Also read: Curiosity, not coding: 6 skills leaders need in the digital age

Q. Then there was also Jobs’ idea of building the iPod + phone, which laid the groundwork for the iPhone. You mention how, at a lot of stages, the team thought it can never happen. What did it take to keep working on something when the odds seemed stacked against you?
At the time, iPod was successful for Apple, shareholders were buying more shares, and people were like, maybe Apple has life in it again. Apple retail started happening… it became a buzz. People started standing in line to buy new iPods. During those same years, the mobile phone industry was gaining traction. The cellphone market was hundreds of millions of units a year. The iPod was tens of millions of units a year. And the mobile phone guys said, ‘We’re always on the go, in your pocket. We have a processor and speaker and all these things… why can’t we do digital music?’ So we went, ‘Wait a second, iPod is 50 percent of revenue for Apple in certain quarters’.

Apple’s finally getting there. But if these mobile phone guys steal the iPod because they integrate it into the mobile phone, we may not have a business any longer, and Apple can go back to the way it used to be, you know, not being successful. It was an existential crisis.

At the same time, BlackBerry was taking off, at least in the professional world. That’s when we decided we need to address how to make Apple get into the mobile phone business. Now, would that be an iPod + phone or would it ultimately become the iPhone that we know today. It took two-and-a-half years to work through different versions of the iPod-plus-phone concept, and also, iPhone generations before the first generation, to ultimately come out with what we’ve seen now as the original iPhone. And then, obviously, 13 to 14 generations later, the iPhone is the success that it is.

Q. Is the founder’s mentality something people are born with or is it something they can pick up along the way?
The mentality to build things is not innate in a person by birth. I think curiosity is though. If you’re naturally curious, that is the drive that you need to learn how to build. So first you have to be curious, but then, you have to be surrounded by environments that help you learn. And learn through failure, so that you can take that curiosity, harness it, and turn it into something. And the third is to always be up for a challenge. If you are naturally curious, and you can get through failure because you see it as learning… because you have the right environment around you, and you keep going, that’s when you can keep building bigger things. Because you understand how to manifest things and how to trust yourself; even in the face of failure, to persevere through the failure, to learn, create them to hopefully find success.

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