It’s hard to fit Tony Fadell, 53, in any one slot. An engineer, an inventor, a designer, and a mentor, he began his Silicon Valley career at a software and electronics startup, General Magic, that wound up in 2004. Undeterred, Fadell went on to invent the iconic Apple iPod, co-create the iPhone, launch Nest, and build the Nest Learning Thermostat.
He has authored more than 300 patents and now leads the investment and advisory firm Future Shape LLC., where he “mentors with money” startups that have the potential to “change the world”. In a video interview from Michigan, US, Fadell speaks about his career, offers tips on how to build a great product, and speaks about his new book, Build: An Unorthodox Guide To Making Things Worth Making, which will be launched in India on 31 May.
He also has dollops of advice for students, budding startups and professionals, and explains why he is not enamoured of buzzwords like the metaverse. Edited excerpts:
What inspired you to write this book, and what are the key lessons in it?
It (the book) was written for an audience that could be anyone from high school to someone thinking about retiring, and everything in between. The biggest thing young people can learn from this (book) is that failure is the way we learn. In many educational institutes across the world, and especially in India, everything is about getting top grades and getting to the top in everything. (But) what you learn in school, and the way you learn in school, is 180 degrees opposite from the way you learn in life—that you do fail. Failure is not the end of the world but actually the beginning of a new one. That’s a big lesson to take away if you are younger. A lot of young people also ask me: What’s the formula for success? There is no formula. Life is not like school.
In your own career, you have seen failure, including delays when introducing versions of the iPod, iPhone and Nest thermostat. What have you learnt from these setbacks?
Yeah, it’s very, very important (to understand this). Let’s start with the analogy of failure. The only way we learnt to walk was by failing many times at trying to walk. That’s the way you have to think about your career. But when it comes to failure, you also have to surround yourself with a mentor—someone you can trust, who is not there for financial gain, or who’s not asking you to pay them a consulting fee. It must be someone who believes in you or believes in your idea. It’s equally important to have a co-founder. If you are really trying to do something big, you should be doing it together with somebody who’s in it every day, because it (the journey) is really hard and an emotional drain.
But you write that it’s not advisable to have more than two co-founders.
Yeah, there’s just too many personalities (if you have more than two co-founders). And even if you do end up doing so, they must have their roles clearly defined, failing which there will always be infighting, preventing you from moving fast enough. In the book, I also speak about opinion versus data-driven decisions. When you have too many opinions, especially at the founder level, that’s a recipe for disaster—and we don’t invest in those kinds of companies. Two co-founders are very common, and we much prefer that over one.
From building products, you now mentor 200 startups. What’s your vision for them?
We are not a venture fund. We call ourselves “mentors with money”. Some of us on the team had retired but retirement didn’t suit us. Nor did pure investing. So we thought of putting our money where our mouth is. In a way, what we do is to find teams building the hardest, most transformational technology on this planet—to help our environment, our societies and our health. Typically, they (the founders) are very smart researchers, scientists and engineers but not necessarily great storytellers or marketing people. They need better storytelling, and you have to make sure you get the disruptive stuff to the market. That’s what we bring, as well as operational details of how to hire and things of that nature.
Could you provide a few examples?
We help some startups, like Impossible Foods that makes plant-based meat and Diamond Foundry that is all about making diamonds without mines. The teams and founders do all the work. We just are mentors. Menlo Micro is another interesting startup that has relevance for a country like India where 8% of all electricity goes towards operating ceiling fans in homes. If you take this Menlo Micro switch and drop it into the control box of the fans, you can reduce the consumption to 4-5% of your energy consumption with one simple change. We are building the factories to supply these switches, which may not be as appealing as the iPod or iPhone but are foundational to rebooting electrical systems around the world.
What about the tech startups in India? Do you find them cool and innovative?
The great thing is that many startups in India are home-grown or built by entrepreneurs who have worked abroad but now have come back to solve problems for India. We need to solve many problems around the world, and the innovation can’t come from just one place (like Silicon Valley). Besides, a lot of companies that move away from China will bring a lot of innovation to countries in South-East Asia, including India.
So how does one go about building a great product while balancing the need for creativity, designing consumer needs, and, of course, the monetisation potential?
First, you must start with pain (a pain point or problem to solve) that many people feel. When people feel that acute pain or remember it like we did with thermostats (that did not heat rooms remotely), you (feel the need to) solve the problem. That’s where the magic happens to many people—engineers, especially scientists and researchers. Second, General Magic was making the iPhone 15 years too early, at a time when we didn’t even have the internet or Wi-Fi or even email. Hence, you must ensure that you have the right timing too, so that at least the early adopters can feel the pain that you are trying to solve. Only then can they (the early adopters) tell everyone, which becomes word-of-mouth marketing that expands and grows the audience.
Also, how should one balance the need for a data-driven approach and a gut-level feeling in a new project, especially one that deals with an unproven idea or technology?
If you are doing something very new, most of the formative decisions of that (product or service) will be opinion-based since you are building something the world has never seen, for which you will not have data. The iPod and iPhone, for instance, were not business successes till their third versions. If you are only data-driven in the early stages, you will die. Thereon, we have to keep on learning from data and feedback but also have a mix of opinion.
Was the late Steve Jobs also a mentor to you, besides being a boss?
He was a mentor at times when he would drop the “boss” face. When we were going to have our first child, he would go on a walk and mentor me and my wife (Danielle Lambert) too, because she was also working for him at the time (in the human resources department). He would talk to us about his experiences with his first child, how that transformed him, and how he thought differently, and how he thought about not just the world but also how to raise kids and stuff like that.
With Jobs no longer there to guide it, do you still consider Apple to be an innovative and cool company?
Absolutely. It’s the most valuable company on the planet. Second, have you seen the M1 processor in the new Macs? It’s incredibly innovative. Now Apple controls the full stack—from the chips and all the way up to the software, apps and servers, to the marketing of the services, and all the content. And that’s not just on the Mac; it’s also on the phone, on the iPad, on the watch, and even on the AirPods. All these (developments) give Apple another decade of innovation because they are working at the core levels.
From your book, it’s evident that you dislike management consultants.
When you bring in a management consultant to help you find a new area, it's not always bad but it's usually not really great. The reason is that the ideas have not come from your team--you do not outsource that. You must understand people and how culture works. That said, there are lots of very smart consultants that can come in from outside the company so they can help managements see employees and the culture from a wider lens because we get too wrapped up in our own things.
But when you (management consultants) say I'm going to give you the strategies to reboot your company, it’s like saying I’m going to show you how to make a five-star gourmet meal, but I have really never made a meal myself.
This is bunk. You got to build those muscles (the team) inside if you want to be healthy every year. And you have to trust your people. If you have to get other people, hire them and help build the organization; don't just drop in ideas. It's also not good for the people who are in the consultancies, especially the young people who think that that's the way that companies are built and how they're managed.
You have said in your book that Google, Facebook, all the tech giants are due for a disruption any day now— or they’ll be forced into it by regulation. Can you expand a bit?
With great power comes great responsibility. You have to do the right things for society. You will have to rein in yourself, or you will be reined in, sooner or later. The financial benefits of technology have to flow down (to everyone).
If you were to build another product, what problem would you like to solve?
For me, it's all about climate. For now, I get to build all kinds of things with great teams. I want to keep doing that. There's only so much I can do with me.
Finally, in the context of unproven technologies, what are your thoughts about the metaverse?
I think there are some very misguided things going on in the world of the metaverse. I believe in AR (Augmented Reality), VR (Virtual Reality) and XR (eXtended Reality)—those technologies are great for certain applications. But something like dancing in a metaverse or trying to make human connection in the metaverse, when you can’t see a person’s face, their eyes or their facial expressions, is unnatural. It’s not the same as a human connection. Besides, we have to have controls on AI. Well, why don’t we have controls in the metaverse too?
Also read: End of an era as Apple discontinues the iPod