iPod inventor Tony Fadell - 'Don't fear failure, embrace it. That's the only way to learn'

Virgin Radio

16 Jun 2022, 10:52

Tony Fadell at Virgin Radio, and the cover of his book, Build

American Entrepreneur and designer Tony Fadell joined the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky to talk about his first book, Build, and about co-creating the iPod and iPhone.

Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making is out now. When Chris asked him how he came up with the idea for the iPod, Tony said: “It really started when I was at Philips Electronics. So I was building a division of Philips. And I was making these little handhelds, kind of similar to the Palm Pilot back then… We were the first device to do audible books. So literally, audible spoken word, audio book.

“This was 1997, 1998. And I was like, ‘Wait a second’. I was a DJ at the time. So I was lugging all the CDs around. I was like, ‘This thing's doing audio. Well, maybe it's gonna do music.’ And I was like, ‘Could I have all of my music in this little handheld thing? Just like I have my audio book?’” 

Tony’s new book deals with the idea that the best ideas are painkillers, not vitamins. He explained: “People don't have to buy vitamins, they don't have to consume vitamins. You're like, ‘Do they work? Sort of they do, sort of they don’t, whatever.’ But painkillers, people need painkillers. And hopefully if you can take painkillers and it's not a painkiller that you're killing the pain every day, but it becomes a superpower, something that gives you much more. Literally tools that you never thought you could have.” 

He continued: “I still collect vinyl. But, at the end of the day, when you're on the go, you want to have everything you want, all your music with you, right? That's where we have all these great streaming services. So to me, you know, we always want to take not just the pain away, but give that superpower, something they've never seen before and they go, ‘Oh my God’. Then they tell all their friends, ‘Go check this out. You gotta see this’. And they feel like they're, they have something that the world's never seen before.”

And after the iPod, Tony was then the co-creator of the iPhone “Mobile phones were starting to adopt mp3 technology to play audio, and people only wanted to carry one device. Is it going to be a cell phone or is it going to be an iPod?" he said.

“We're like, ‘The successful business of iPod is going to go away, because everybody wants more mobile phones’. So we tried to partner with mobile phone companies. It was a dramatic failure, so we decided we had to make our own. And at the time, there was the touchscreen Mac, that was being worked on. There was the video iPod, full screen with a virtual interface. And then an iPod plus phone, which was the classic one that had a phone built into it. All three of those things came together and were the basis of what we know as the iPhone now.”

When Chris asked what the biggest bump in the road was in that technology journey, he said: “Everything! We had to do all new semiconductors. We had to build our own touchscreen technology. We had to build their own touchscreen factory. We had to build all new software, all new apps. We had to work with carriers. We had never built a cell phone before. We had to build cameras into devices. We had never built cameras into things. Everything was new. It was an incredibly huge project!”

Speaking about how the iPod has now gone off sale, he said: “I couldn't believe it was actually on sale still after 21 years. So to me, that was like, ‘Okay, we're finally there.’ But look, the iPod might be gone. But I'll never be forgotten. It’s a cornerstone… something that's gonna live forever in history.”

Tony spoke about working with Steve Jobs, telling Chris: “We hear a lot in the popular press about how Steve was like a real tyrant. And really, that's not true." 

He explained that Jobs was, “mission-driven, and saying ‘We need to get this right. We're not working hard enough, work harder on this, we’ve got to get it right. Because if we don't, the customer is going to suffer.’ That's what the magic was of Steve. And that's what I watched him do.

“A lot of times, he had incredibly great ideas. And other times they weren't. But that's okay. If you don't have bad ideas, you're not probably pushing hard enough to get the good ideas.”

Tony is also the founder and former CEO of thermostat company Nest Labs, which he sold to Google in 2014 for $3.2 billion. “You know when you have a good idea, is when the competition first laughs at you. Then they get angry. And then they sue. And that happened with iPad, iPhone and even the thermostat. Yeah, we got sued for the thermostat!”

He now leads the investment and advisory firm Future Shape, where he mentors the next generation of startups that are changing the world. He explained: “We have 200 investments, direct investments in companies that help the climate, help societies and help health. That's what we focus on, so disruptive technologies, that I learned that if you have disruptive things like iPod and iPhone, you can unseat the incumbents, take down the big guys like we took down Nokia and Sony and all these things. 

“We work with those incredibly brilliant brains, helping the planet to do new things that the world's never seen… We try to get into the stuff before it's going to change the world. And then the world sees what it is, we help them to get the word out. And then we hope to change the world for the better. Right?”

In his new book, Tony discusses the struggles people have in business, management or career advice. He told Chris: “You always have to challenge yourself because if you're not leapfrogging yourself, someone else is going to leapfrog you, right? It's a never ending treadmill in tech in most businesses, but in tech, it's faster than ever. And everybody's competing.” 

When Chris asked how he spots a business winner, Tony told him: “If you're trying to start something yourself, it's an idea that chases you. People have ideas, and then they focus on one or more ideas. I try to run away from them, because I get so many ideas. I want ones that are going to feed on my brain. They're like, unfortunately, viruses, they sit there they go, ‘Oh, think about this and think about that’. And I can't get away from it.”

He added: “Don't fear failure, embrace it. That's the only way to learn.”

Build, An Unorthodox Guide To Making Things Worth Making is out now. 

For more great interviews listen to  The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky, weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or  catch up on-demand here.