Innovative people who change the world often possess a special attunement to the things that other people gloss over. “It comes down to understanding and seeing problems that most people didn't see. It's about notice,” says Tony Fadell, the leader of the team that created the first 18 generations of the iPod and the first three generations of the iPhone. “The first thing is knowing there’s a gap — you have to stay a beginner.”
Fadell is currently the principal at Future Shape, an investment and advisory firm coaching deep tech start-ups. Previously, he co-founded and was the CEO of Nest. He is the author of over 300 patents as well as the book Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making. He spoke at the 2022 Aspen Ideas Festival. Here are key takeaways from his talk, including advice on creating world-changing products and how to think outside the box to solve your customers’ problems.
How to Invent Something Great? Stay a Beginner
If you want to solve your customers’ problems, you have to put yourself in their shoes and stay there for a while. “When you're building or creating something, you have to tap into those earliest days for people to remind them of what I call the ‘virus of doubt,’” he says. If you can infect them with this “virus” — getting them annoyed about a daily frustration and believing that they could be having a better experience — then you’ve primed them for the solution your product brings.
As an innovator, you have to “remind yourself first of those pain points and where they originated.” Remember the days when you couldn’t just Airdrop three hundred photos to your friend after a vacation? Or painstakingly making mixtapes for your crush instead of sending them a Spotify playlist? Once you remember that, Tony says, “then you try to bring a painkiller. Solving and giving a painkiller — that is when you know you have a great product.”
Failure is Key
Start-ups and screw-ups go hand in hand. “If you're not making mistakes, you're not trying hard enough,” he advises. “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough, and you’re not going to do anything that's changing the world.” For something to really take off like the iPhone did, it has to be both the right place and the right time. Fadell says he learned from experience that sometimes failure happens because the technology is ready but society is not.
Getting a lot of no’s is likely a good indicator you’re on the right track. “If you’re doing anything revolutionary, and you’re going to unseat the incumbents, the first thing they’re going to do is laugh at you. The second thing they’re going to do is get angry and try to stop you. And the third thing they’re going to do is sue you,” he says. “It means you're onto the right thing and investors should see that.”