iPod inventor Tony Fadell on how to spot a great idea

An excerpt from 'Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making'
May 3, 2022, 6:00 PM UTC
'Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making' by Tony Fadell.
Courtesy of Harper Business

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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.

Before you commit to executing on an idea—to starting a company or launching a new product—you should commit to researching it and trying it out first. Practice delayed intuition. This is a phrase coined by the brilliant, Nobel Prize–winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman to describe the simple concept that to make better decisions, you need to slow down.

The more amazing an idea seems—the more it tugs at your gut, blinds you to everything else—the longer you should wait, prototype it, and gather as much information about it as possible before committing. If this idea is going to eat up years of your life, you should at least take a few months to research it, build out detailed (enough) business and product development plans, and see if you’re still excited about it. See if it will chase you.

And keep in mind that not all decisions rise to this level. Most day-to-day decisions can and should be made quickly, especially if you’re iterating on something that already exists. You should still take your time and consider your options and make sure you’re thinking through next steps, but not every idea has to chase you around for a month.

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The best ideas are painkillers, not vitamins.

Vitamin pills are good for you, but they’re not essential. You can skip your morning vitamin for a day, a month, a lifetime and never notice the difference.

But you’ll notice real quick if you forget a painkiller.

Painkillers eliminate something that’s constantly bothering you. A regular irritation you can’t get rid of. And the best pain—so to speak—is one you experience in your own life. Most startups are born from people getting so frustrated with something in their daily experience that they start digging in and trying to find a solution.

Not every product idea has to come from your own life, but the “why” always has to be crisp and easy to articulate. You have to be able to easily, clearly, persuasively explain why people will need it. That’s the only way to understand what features it should have, whether the timing is right for it to exist, whether the market for it will be tiny or enormous.

Once you have a really strong “why,” you have the germ of a great idea. But you can’t build a business on a germ. First you have to figure out if this idea is actually strong enough to carry a company. You need to build a business and implementation plan. And you have to understand if it’s something you want to work on for the next five to ten years of your life.

The only way to know is to see if it will chase you. And the chasing process is always the same:

  • First, you’re dumbstruck by how great an idea this is. How has nobody thought of this before?
  • Then you start looking into it. And oh, okay—they have thought of it. They tried it and failed. Or maybe you really have stumbled into something nobody has ever done before. And the reason is this insane, impossible obstacle that there’s no way to get around. You begin to understand how hard it would be to do this—there’s so much you don’t know. So you put it aside.
  • But you can’t get it out of your head. So you research it here and there. You start sketching or coding or writing, making little prototypes of what this thing could be. Napkin drawings constantly fall out of your bag. Your notebook is full of feature ideas, sales ideas, marketing ideas, business model ideas. You think that maybe the people who tried this idea before were taking the wrong approach. Or maybe an obstacle that was stopping others can now be solved with a new technology—maybe the moment for this idea has finally come.
  • That’s when it starts to get more real for you. So you decide to commit to really looking into it, to digging deep to make an informed decision. You need to figure out whether you should pursue this idea or not.
  • One day you realize there’s a way around that one impossible obstacle. You’re thrilled! Until you see the next huge roadblock in your way. Crap. It’ll never work. But you keep digging and trying things and getting advice from experts and friends and you realize, actually, maybe there’s a way around that, too.
  • People start asking you about your project—when are you going to start? Can I join? Are you taking angel investment? Each obstacle turns into an opportunity, each problem pushes you to find a new solution, and each solution gets you more excited about this idea.
  • Even though there are still a million unknowns—they’re not unknown unknowns anymore. You understand the space. You can see what this business could become. And you start to gain momentum from all the research you’ve done and barriers you’ve conquered. It feels like it’s all coming together. You feel in your gut that this is the right decision. So you bite the bullet and commit.

For me, this whole process took ten years. That’s how long the thermostat chased me.

That is pretty extreme, by the way. If you’ve got an idea for a business or a new product, you usually don’t have to wait a decade to make sure it’s worth doing.

But you should commit a month—or two, or six—to researching and poking around and making some rough prototypes, articulating your story of “why.” If during that month—or two, or six—you only get more excited about the idea and can’t stop thinking about it, then you can get more serious. Take at least another few months—possibly up to a year—to look at it from every angle and consult with people you trust, create some business plans and presentations, and prepare as well as you possibly can.

You do not want to start a company only to discover that your seemingly great idea is a shiny veneer over a hollow tooth, ready to crack at the slightest pressure.

Time Magazine has called Fadell’s inventions—the Nest Learning Thermostat (over 11 million thermostats sold), the iPod, and the iPhone—three of the “50 most influential gadgets of all time.”
Williamson Adams

A lot of startups have a “fail fast” mentality in Silicon Valley. It’s a trendy term that means instead of planning carefully for what you want to make, you build first and figure it out later. You iterate until you “find” success. This can manifest in two ways—either you knock out a product quickly then iterate even faster to get to something people want, or you quit your job, cut loose from your commitments, and sit around thinking up startup ideas until you find a business that works. The former approach sometimes works; the latter usually fails.

Throwing darts at a wall is not how you pick a great idea. Anything worth doing takes time. Time to understand. Time to prepare. Time to get it right. You can fast-track a lot of things and skimp on others, but you cannot cheat time.

That said, ten years is a little much. But for most of the ten years that I idly thought about thermostats, I had no intention of building one. I was at Apple making the first iPhone, leading a huge team. I was learning and growing, up to my eyeballs in work. And eventually I got married, had kids. I was busy.

But then again, I was also really cold. Bone-chillingly cold.

Every time my wife and I drove up to our Lake Tahoe ski cabin on Friday nights after work, we’d have to keep our snow jackets on until the next day. The house took all night to heat up since we kept it just above freezing when we were away to avoid wasting energy and money.

And I felt the pain. Walking into that frigid house drove me nuts. It was mind-boggling that there wasn’t a way to warm it up before we got there. I spent dozens of hours and thousands of dollars trying to hack security and computer equipment tied to an analog phone so I could fire up the thermostat remotely. Half my vacations were spent elbow-deep in wiring, electronics littering the floor. My wife rolled her eyes—you are on vacation! But nothing worked. So the first night of every trip was always the same: we’d huddle on the ice block of a bed, under the freezing sheets, watching our breath turn into fog until the house finally warmed up by morning.

Then on Monday I’d go back to Apple and work on the first iPhone.

Eventually I realized I was making a perfect remote control for a thermostat. If I could just connect the HVAC system to my iPhone, I could control it from anywhere. But the technology that I needed to make it happen—reliable low-cost communications, cheap screens and processors—didn’t exist yet. So I tried to set the idea aside. Focus on my work. Not think about the cold.

This is an excerpt from the book Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making by Tony Fadell. Copyright © 2022 by Tony Fadell. Reprinted by permission of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.