Build by Tony Fadell: Book Summary and Key Ideas from the book

Dec 3, 2022

Tony Fadell led the teams that created the iPod, iPhone and Nest Learning Thermostat. The book takes a deep dive into not just successes, but also failure stories making it a more realistic read than many books of the same genre.

Key Ideas from the book, Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making

Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making by Tony Fadell is full of personal stories, practical advice and fascinating insights into some of the most impactful products and people of the 20th century. Here are key ideas curated for you.

Becoming a Manager: 6 things you should know

  1. You do not have to be a manager to be successful. Many people assume that the only path to more money and stature is managing a team.
  2. Remember that once you become a manager, you’ll stop doing the thing that made you successful in the first place. You’ll no longer be doing the things you do really well—instead you’ll be digging into how others do them, helping them improve.
  3. Becoming a manager is a discipline. Management is a learned skill, not a talent. You’re not born with it.
  4. Being exacting and expecting great work is not micromanagement. Your job is to make sure the team produces high-quality work.
  5. Honesty is more important than style. You can be successful with any style as long as you never shy away from respectfully telling the team the uncomfortable, hard truth that needs to be said.
  6. Don’t worry that your team will outshine you. In fact, it’s your goal.

On Data vs Intuition

Nothing in the world is ever 100 percent sure. Even scientific research with entirely data-based outcomes is actually filled with caveats—we didn’t do this kind of sampling, there was this variant, we need to follow up with this test.

“It’s not data or intuition; it’s data and intuition.”

Ivy Ross, vice president of hardware design at Google

You need both. You use both.


The 4 types of assholes in any org.

  1. Political assholes The people who master the art of corporate politics, but then do nothing but take credit for everyone else’s work. incredibly risk averse.
  2. Controlling assholes. Micromanagers who systematically strangle the creativity and joy out of their team. They never give people credit for their work, never praise it, and often steal it.
  3. Asshole assholes They suck at work and everything else. These are the mean, jealous, insecure jerks who you’d avoid at a party, but who inevitably sit immediately next to you at the office
  4. Mission-driven “assholes”: The people who are crazy passionate—and a little crazy. Much like true assholes, they are neither easygoing nor easy to work with. Unlike true assholes, they care. They give a damn. They listen.

Steve Jobs was a mission-driven “asshole,” a passionate hurricane.

On Building Products

When a company gives that kind of care and attention to every part of the journey, people notice. Our product was good, but ultimately it was the whole journey that defined our brand. That’s what made Nest special. It’s what makes Apple special. It’s what allows businesses to reach beyond their product and create a connection—not with users and consumers, but with human beings. It’s how you create something that people will love.

Tony Fadell

Storytelling. Like Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs used a technique call the virus of doubt. It’s a way to get into people’s heads, remind them about a daily frustration, get them annoyed about it all over again.

If you can infect them with the virus of doubt—“Maybe my experience isn’t as good as I thought, maybe it could be better”—then you prime them for your solution. You get them angry about how it works now so they can get excited about a new way of doing things.

Your product’s story is its design, its features, images and videos, quotes from customers, tips from reviewers, conversations with support agents. It’s the sum of what people see and feel about this thing that you’ve created.

And the story doesn’t just exist to sell your product. It’s there to help you define it, understand it, and understand your customers.

And it all starts with “why.” Why does this thing need to exist? Why does it matter? Why will people need it? Why will they love it?

Use analogies. Analogies (example: 1,000 songs in your pocket) can be such a useful tool in storytelling. They create a shorthand for complicated concepts—a bridge directly to a common experience.

How to spot a great idea?

There are three elements to every great idea:

1. It solves for “why.” Long before you figure out what a product will do, you need to understand why people will want it. The “why” drives the “what.”

2. It solves a problem that a lot of people have in their daily lives.

3. It follows you around. Even after you research and learn about it and try it out and realize how hard it’ll be to get it right, you can’t stop thinking about it.

You can only have one customer.

The bulk of your focus and the whole of your branding should be for consumers or business—not both.

Understanding your customer—their demographics and psychographics, their wants and needs and pain points—is the foundation of your company.

For the vast majority of businesses, losing sight of the main customer you’re building for is the beginning of the end.

..if you cater to both, your marketing still has to be B2C. You can never convince a regular person to use a B2B product that’s obviously not meant for them, but you can convince a company to use your product if you appeal to the human beings inside that company.

There are two kinds of work/life balance:

1. True work/life balance: A magical, quasi-mythical state where you have time for everything: work, family, hobbies, seeing friends, exercising, vacationing. Work is just one part of your life that doesn’t intrude on any other part. This kind of balance is impossible when you’re starting a company, leading a team that’s trying to create innovative products or services on a competitive timeline, or just experiencing crunch time at work.

2. Personal balance when you’re working: Knowing you’re going to be working or thinking about work most of the time and creating space to give your brain and body a break.

On Handling Crisis: The Playbook

  • Keep your focus on how to fix the problem, not who to blame. That will come later and is far too distracting early on.
  • As a leader, you’ll have to get into the weeds. Don’t be worried about micromanagement—as the crisis unfolds your job is to tell people what to do and how to do it. 
  • Get advice. From mentors, investors, your board, or anyone else you know who’s gone through something similar. Don’t try to solve your problems alone.
  • Your job once people get over the initial shock will be constant communication. 

On Hiring great team members

Tony Fadell: In an interview I’m always most interested in three basic things: who they are, what they’ve done, and why they did it. I usually start with the most important questions: “What are you curious about? What do you want to learn?”

Another good interview technique is to simulate work—instead of asking them how they work, just work with them. Pick a problem and try to solve it together.

A Method to Marketing

  1. Marketing cannot just be figured out at the very end
  2. Use marketing to prototype your product narrative
  3. The product is the brand.
  4. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
  5. The best marketing is just telling the truth (Steve Jobs)

The ultimate job of marketing is to find the very best way to tell the true story of your product.

Becoming CEO

There are generally three kinds of CEOs:

  1. Babysitter CEOs are stewards of the company and are focused on keeping it safe and predictable. Most public company CEOs are babysitters.
  2. Parent CEOs push the company to grow and evolve. They take big risks for larger rewards. Innovative founders—like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos—are always parent CEOs
  3. Incompetent CEOs are usually either simply inexperienced or founders who are ill-suited to lead a company after it reaches a certain size.

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