11 business lessons from iPod father Tony Fadell

'If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough…,' he says. 'You’re not going to innovate and you’re not going to keep your company fresh.'

Apple, iPhone, iPad, product design, leadership

On tour to promote his latest book, ‘Build,’ former Apple executive and iPod designer Tony Fadell talked tech with CNBC. The conversation includes a slew of tidbits for Apple history fans, but Fadell also shared great advice for anyone in enterprise tech.

What follows is a small smattering of what was said.

When creating products, think why

“You have to be able to tell the ‘why’ story,” Fadell said.

When designing new products, it’s important that what is made meets customer needs, solves existing problems, or augments what they can do. Not only that, but good product development doesn’t stop at the what, but extends to the why, explaining the product and building a narrative that relates it to people’s lives.

Think about how effective “1,000 songs in your pocket” was as an iPod slogan.

Product stories must be justified

Your customers are discerning. If you say a product can achieve something amazing, you’d best make sure it lives up to the claims.

Like any story, audiences are unforgiving and won’t easily be convinced to return if you promise something you don’t deliver. “You must deliver. This is not fiction. Too much marketing is fiction.”

Summarize from the start

Some time back, a Steve Jobs-written agenda was circulated online. In a few lines, it summarized concepts familiar today, but not then. Jobs was summarizing before development was complete.

“So many people wait till the end [of a project]” to summarize what a product does and why it matters, Fadell said.

He argues that it’s important to know where you are trying to get to at the beginning, “People don’t film the movie and then go, ‘Oh, now here’s the script and here’s how we sell it,” he said. “They come up with a story early.”

But see "ready for change" below.

Technology isn’t for geeks

The difference between the iPod and MP3 players around at that time was that the latter used off-the-shelf components and aimed at a slightly geeky audience. Apple understood that while most people loved music, the majority of those who did weren’t particularly geeky — they sought a smoother user experience.

The lesson in product design was and still is to figure out who the audience is, what they need, and to combine the ingredients to create an experience in which the technology gets out of the way to answer those needs. It’s a user experience design lesson that’s as important to consumer devices as it is to any enterprise tech.

Sometimes the best products are born as designers seek ways to resolve pain, as Fadell argues he managed to achieve with the Nest thermostat.

It’s also why digital transformation leaders need to speak with the people on the front lines to make sure solutions ease friction, rather than adding to it. Shadow IT is usually a cry for help.

But be ready for change

Steve Jobs at first resisted the notion of providing Windows support for iPod. He wanted the device and Apple retail stores to convince people to switch to Mac. This didn’t happen at a fast enough clip at that point, and Apple’s data showed that while Windows users loved iPods they didn’t have the cash to switch to Mac to use one.

“That was the stark reality,” Fadell said.

The data and a chat with "Wall Street Journal" tech correspondent Walt Mossberg eventually persuaded Jobs to relent.

The takeaway? If your plan isn’t working, or if what you hope it will accomplish isn’t happening, don’t be frightened to change course. Good decisions based on evidence are still good decisions. “You have to embrace it…, move on and adapt to what you’ve seen.” The story line must always be flexible and respond to change.

Make mistakes

Making and correcting mistakes takes leadership. Sometimes you’ll only learn by shipping and through customer feedback. Fadell says it sometimes takes three versions of something to get it right. The first iteration of any product will mostly reflect the opinions of those who built it, but later down the line will change to reflect real-world data.

“A lot of companies have a crisis of confidence because they try to get data for something that doesn’t exist,” Fadell said. Those companies stick to opinion, but don’t get it right. Change is good.

Another problem is that you can’t make good, initial opinion-based decisions as a committee. “Opinion-based decisions can’t be a huge group of people, because you get to a lowest common denominator.” That can dilute the story.

Competitors will always mock you at first, and then, maybe, you’ll win. But not always – even Jobs had an iPod HiFi and G4 Cube. “Your heroes are also humans.”

Don’t forget to ship

Fadell shared some of his experiences at other companies, when teams became so focused on product development that shipping dates were constantly delayed. “It became a never-ending quest without shipping to get feedback from the customer,” he said. “You have to [have] the constraint that you’re going to ship within some window of time so you can drive the team to keep them together and motivated.”

Once products are in the world, teams can course correct.

Don’t forget to grow

Reading between the lines, it looked as if Fadell went through at least one stage when he sought more meaning and more purpose. 

“You get in the shoes of other people and start to really be empathetic and understand everybody's not built like you…, really trying to understand how to communicate, not in your language, but in their language — what resonates with them, right?”

Getting to grips with how people who are not you think informs better decisions.

“You have to get out of your space and get into their space without losing yourself and being able to bring it back and use those insights to help you do a better job,” he said.

You have to reach to the human.

3 more things

There’s so much more in the interview, but three stood out to me:

  • “Our job is to communicate the technology and deliver it in such a way that we bring superpowers to people without them having to be geeky.”
  • To paraphrase what is perhaps Fadell’s most important point, and one that every business leader should spend time thinking about a this time: “There is so much money to be made when every single market is going to get disrupted because of the climate crisis…. We have to change, because that's what it's going to take to get us past this existential crisis.”
  • “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough…. You’re not going to innovate and you’re not going to keep your company fresh.”

You can watch the entire interview here. Fadell’s new book is available now.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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