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INNOVATE

6 Pointers from the Man Who Invented the iPod

Tony Fadell led the team that created the first 18 iterations of the iPod (and the first three of the iPhone). Here he describes his creative process.
Tony Fadell at Brooklyn Beta in 2011.
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Most people associate creation of the iPod—and more than 300 million sales of the device—with Steve Jobs. For good reason.

Still, inventor Tony Fadell also deserves credit for the invention so popular—so mainstream—that it's pretty much become an eponym for all personal music players. 

According to Apple lore, "Tony's idea was to take an MP3 player, build a Napster music sale service to complement it, and build a company around it," Wired reported in 2004.

Initially, Fadell was contracted by Steve Jobs and Apple to design an MP3 player. Recognizing his talent, Apple brought him on full time. By the time he left Apple, in 2008, Fadell had led the team that designed 18 generations of the iPod and accrued more than 100 patents on his design and technology. 

In 2010, Fadell, who grew up in Michigan, founded Nest, a consumer-tech company that in October launched its first product—the world's first "learning thermostat"—that can figure out the temperature you prefer.

On Friday, Fadell took the stage at the 99% conference in New York City—where he was also awarded the first-ever Alva Award, after Thomas "Alva" Edision—to discuss his design and invention process.

What's your source of creativity?

Frustration. I peer into the world and and see products and keep getting frustrated. When I was four years old, my grandfather showed me how to build things. He taught me how to be engaged with physical things. As I evolved and moved forward, I wanted to learn how things work—music, art, architecture, and products. Through that, I could look at a product and say 'I think I know how they made that.' Frustration today came from being able to see the world and being able to ask 'Why isn't this built differently?' or 'Why isn't this built better?'

What's the best way to prototype?

There's no one correct way to prototype. But whenever you build something, you need to go and look at why you're building it in the first place, and what you're trying to make different. You need to look at the hard pieces of the puzzle—for example, how is the user really going to interact with this thing. Find the hardest thing—the thing you're differentiating—and go and look very deeply into that. You have to listen to the experts. You can't always trust yourself. But at the same time, if someone says what you're doing is crazy, sometimes that means you're on the right track.

What is the right combination between long-term strategy versus agility?

You have to always set up constraints for yourself. You have to get to milestones. You can have a long-term vision. But you need to set near-term milestones where you actually understand what you're trying to build. Once you get to that short-term milestone, then assess if that thing can eventually be a finished product.

It's also important for your team. Your team needs to understand what your milestones are going to be. It's going to be important to keep everyone on your team aware of why things have failed or succeeded.

What are some creative ways to get projects approved?

There's three essential things. First, passion. It's a thoughtful passion, not an egotistical passion. Second, presentation. You want the person on the other side of the table to understand the risks you're taking and how you're going to mitigate those risks. Third, partnership. Make sure you're talking to the right people, not just people who are thinking about numbers or ROI or when you're going to ship.

How do you strip away the excess of design?

Set constraints. Pick your window for shipping. Find a time, but typically no more than a year. You cannot hold on to the emotional team spirit for more than a year. People can't commit for more than a year.

Second, there are two types of decisions: opinion decisions and fact decisions. Facts are easy, but opinions are hard. People try to get third party opinions or data, but that rarely works. So, what do you do? Very simply, you must have a leader that can not only make those decisions, but articulate why he or she is making those decisions. This builds DNA inside the team so they understand why it is they do what they do.

What were the greatest moments of doubt you've encountered?

Everything I do has doubt. If you're not having doubt, you're not pushing boundaries far enough.




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