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Tony Fadell: How to build the future

Tony Fadell: How to build the future

Episode 71 of the Design Better Podcast

For many of us, being the co-creator of two of the most transformative products of the early 21st century—the iPod and iPhone—would be enough for one career. But Tony Fadell was just getting started.

After his time at Apple, Tony started Nest Labs, known for its smart home products like thermostats and fire alarms, which sold to Google for over 3 billion dollars. He’s authored more than 300 patents, and with his newest venture, the Build Collective, he’s investing time and money to help engineers and scientists build a greener world.

He’s also written a book about what he’s learned over the years called Build. In this interview, we chat with him about what some of his early failures taught him, why the best teams are multigenerational, and how to deal with the different types of—for lack of a better word—a*holes you might encounter in your career.


Tony Fadell started his 30+ year Silicon Valley career at General Magic, the most influential startup nobody has ever heard of. Then he went on to make the iPod and iPhone, start Nest, and create the Nest Learning Thermostat. Throughout his career, Tony has authored more than 300 patents. He now leads the investment and advisory firm Build Collective, which invests its money and time to help engineers and scientists build a greener world, in which every person enjoys a longer, richer life.

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Summary (via ChatGPT 🤖)

Tony Fadell, co-creator of the iPod and iPhone, and founder of Nest Labs, discusses his career, mentorship, the importance of understanding the "why" behind product creation, and the differences between General Magic and Apple. He emphasizes the importance of timing, technology, and solving real problems for users.


  • 🎙️ Tony Fadell is a co-creator of the iPod and iPhone, and founder of Nest Labs

  • 🏭 Nest Labs is known for smart home products and was sold to Google for over 3 billion dollars

  • 📚 Fadell has authored over 300 patents and has a book called "Build"

  • 🌍 Fadell's newest venture, the Build Collective, focuses on helping engineers and scientists build a greener world

  • 📽️ General Magic, a company Fadell worked for early in his career, tried to create an iPhone-like device 15 years before the iPhone

  • 🕰️ Timing, both technology-wise and societal-wise, was a crucial factor in the failure of General Magic

  • 🚀 Fadell emphasizes the importance of understanding the "why" behind products and solving real problems for users


Tony Fadell (00:02):

When I wanna build a team, I go, what do you wanna learn? I don't care that they just have a heartbeat and have experience. I wanna know that they're in it for a reason. Why are they curious? Why do they wanna come to this company? Why do they want to work on this project if it's just to get a title or a salary or whatever? I don't want, I want people who are gonna deliver and bring their whole self because they're so curious and they're passionate about learning and hopefully, you know, solving a problem.

Aarron Walter (00:31):

Hi, I'm Aarron Walter.

Eli Woolery (00:33):

And I'm Eli Woolery. For many of us being the co-creator of two of the most transformative products of the early 21st century, the iPod and iPhone would be enough for one career. But Tony Fadell was just getting started.

Aarron Walter (00:46):

After his time at Apple, Tony went on to start Nest Labs, known for its smart home products like thermostats and fire alarms, which sold to Google for over 3 billion. He's authored more than 300 patents, and with his newest venture, the Build Collective, he's investing time and money to help engineers and scientists build a greener world.

Eli Woolery (01:08):

He's also written a book about what he is learned over the years called Build. In this interview, we chat with him about what some of his early failures taught him, why the best teams are multi-generational, and how to deal with the different types of, lack of a better word, a-holes you might encounter in your career.

Aarron Walter (01:24):

Chatting with Tony. It's hard not to be inspired, and we hope you learn as much as we did from this conversation. Thanks for listening.

Eli Woolery (01:34):

Before we get to the show, a few words from our sponsors.

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Aarron Walter (02:12):

This episode is brought to you by Fable, who make it easy to build accessible, inclusive products. Learn more at And later on in the show.


Tony Fadell, welcome to Design Better podcast.

Tony Fadell (02:31):

Well, I am so glad to be here. Thank you for having me. We've been waiting to do this for a while now, so I'm glad we got a chance.

Aarron Walter (02:37):

Yeah, what a treat. It's, it's definitely a treat for us. You know, we admire your work and we've enjoyed your book. You've got this new book out called Build, which collects a lot of kind of hard-earned wisdom through school of hard knocks over decades of your career. Why this book? Why now? How is it important to what you want to do at this point in your life,

Tony Fadell (02:58):

<laugh>? Yeah, you know, this was something I've been thinking about. Well, first I've been getting bugged about for 15 years. So my book agent has been bugging me for 15 years. Can't believe they didn't give up long time ago. So definitely was always like, you need to write something in your United, and I felt like I should, but I wasn't sure. So over the last kind of 10 years, I tried something and threw it away, tried something, threw it away. So each time it wasn't feeling right. And then about three years ago, actually pre pandemic, I all of a sudden, you know, had been because of the investment activity I do now at Build Collective, I'm talking to entrepreneurs all the time in management teams and they're asking me the same questions over and over. And I remember them being very similar questions to what I was asking my mentors.


And I was like, oh, wait a second. And I thought about my mentors and I was like, oh, most of them had died. And I'm like, oh, wait a second. That means I'm the mentor now I'm the old guy, O'Hare, you know, all that stuff. And so you're like, okay, I think it's time to give back because the only reason I'm talking to you today is because people helped me without financial, you know, benefit or gain or anything. They helped me. They saw something in the My ideas or something in me and they helped me to get to where I am, you know, and, and a lot of hard work too. But now it's time for me to give back and to honor my mentors. And so Build is really about honoring my mentors. And selfishly, it's also about stopping to have to answer the same questions over and over and over, like I have for the last 10 years to go like, alright, here we go. And I'm getting sick and tired of, you know, saying the same stories over and over. So I thought it was a great thing to honor them and to also find more time in my day and to help people in a much broader sense. So, you know, for anybody building themselves their career products, teams, companies. And so that's really what it's about. You know, it was a labor of love. It was two years of intense effort during Covid actually. And so I'm just so happy that it's being well received.

Eli Woolery (04:58):

Tony. So speaking of mentors, let's rewind your career a little bit and talk about General Magic because you work with some really brilliant designers and engineers there. There was a lot of creativity in that environment, but they didn't necessarily lead to commercial success. So maybe you could talk a little bit about your time there and what you learned, but why things maybe didn't pan out in the product arena, the way they might have <laugh>.

Tony Fadell (05:20):

Sure, sure. Well, first of all, all the listeners should know that there's a movie called General Magic, the movie, they should check it out. It goes into gory detail about the whole thing in a great way. And it's a really educational one and it shows how failure is not the end. But let me give you my perspective on general magic. You know, I went there, I just got out of college, you know, I had my own startup, but I was a big fish in a very small pond. There was pre-internet, right? Pre-mobile phones, pre-everything. So for me, I had to go find out the best teams that I could go work with to go learn from. Because in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while it's a great school, there were really not a lot of small companies. It was all big, big companies and they weren't necessarily cutting edge.


And I had always dreamed of Silicon Valley, right? So going to Silicon Valley and reading in the rumor pages of Mac World and Mac Week magazine, uh, back when there were magazines, I was able to learn about this company called General Magic. It was comprised of the people who had created the Macintosh, literally the marketing, the graphics, the software, the hardware these people created, the Macintosh. The only person who wasn't there was Steve, Steve Jobs. And so I was like, I gotta go work with these people. These are my heroes. How can I go learn from them? Because I was starved for knowledge, starved for any kind of connection. So I just banged on the door and all that stuff. And finally got in, uh, after six, nine months of really trying hard <laugh> when I got there, you know, it was really an amazing sandbox of just, we are building everything from scratch.


And what we were creating when you look back now, was we were creating the iPhone 15 years too early. So literally we were making the iPhone. So we had downloadable games and you could buy travel online, you could send emails. Most people didn't even have emails at the time with emojis. Even early emojis were in it. You could obviously make phone calls. It wasn't mobile phone. Well, there was one version that was kind of a mobile phone, and it was all touchscreen based and all graphical based. If you look at it and you squint and you go, oh my God, everything's there. We'd even have community where you could go and you know, socialize and stuff like that. Now the big thing to understand this was 19 91, 92, 93, 94, this was pre-internet. So there was no internet, there was no mobile phone network really, no, definitely no mobile data.


And the best we had was a phone line, an analog phone line, you know, beep beep like a fax machine, right? So we're talking 56 K modem, and we had gray scale screens, big batteries. The very first lithium ion battery was in that general magic device that ever le was on the planet. So this is where, you know, we started, but what really came to be was that it was a tremendous failure. Everybody said it was gonna be an incredible success, but what we were doing was we were solving problems that even we didn't have, we were just impressing each other as geeks. So we were doing, Hey, look at this. Isn't this cool? Yeah, that's cool. Ooh, that's cool, that's cool. And this project that was supposed to be a year, year and a half turned into four years because we couldn't help ourselves.


Oh, this would be cool, let's do that, let's do this. So we'd add more and more to this product. But frankly, we didn't know who we were making it for. We were making it to impress ourselves. And at the end of the day, nobody had the same problems. We didn't even have the same problems we were trying to solve. It took 15 years later when the iPhone came out, when people had a laptop, they were carrying a laptop with them for productivity tools and internet browsing. They had iPod for mobile entertainment, music and videos. And they also had a cell phone, a mobile phone for messaging and voice communication. And there was wifi and there was the internet and people knew who, what eTailing was. And so when we showed the iPhone, all of these problems for many people were solved in this one package. But 15 years earlier, we didn't have any of that technology. Nobody knew what the problems were we were solving and why they needed. And so at General Magic, we had the wrong timing technology wise, we had the wrong timing societal wise because we were solving problems that no one had. And so we had the right vision, we just didn't have the right timing. And two very fundamental aspects.

Aarron Walter (09:36):

Let's go deeper on that because I think you of all human beings on this planet have a very unique view on the delta between creativity and innovation and being able to create innovative teams, create new technology, new ideas, and your time at General Magic and your time at Apple. There's a lot of overlap in terms of like the people that you worked with, maybe some of the methodologies and so forth. But it seems like the constraints are one of the dimensions that might have led to innovation. So creativity, making new things, new ideas, kind of chasing those new things. Innovation where it's like applying that to people's actual needs. That is, there's a story to how this fits into the world and how people are gonna use it. What's the delta between r and d and innovation at General Magic and at Apple?

Tony Fadell (10:30):

Okay, well, you know, between General Magic and Apple and Apple has changed a lot, even from my first early days there. And that was 20 years ago. So Apple's changed over time cuz it's matured and figured these things out, especially without Steve there now you have to really figure it out. So I think the biggest difference that I learned was understanding the why. Now we didn't do the why like I do the why today, but back then Steve innately had the, why are we building this thing in his gut? Okay. And we didn't have all the tools we have today, but back then it was like, what is the problem we are solving? Who are we solving it for? So in the case of the iPod, it was, everybody loves music, so that's not a problem. What's the pain? The pain is taking all of your music with you or at least a thousand songs in your pocket, and ultimately a lot more than that 10,000 songs in your pocket.


So you could go around and it was a Pocketable device that had long battery leg. So right there it was like, we are making this product for the world. Everybody loves music and everybody wants to have the music they love with them all the time, not just, you know, couple CDs or cassettes with it or whatever. They wanna have all their music. And the digital music revolution was just starting with MP three s, but it was so geeky, it was Geeks for Geeks designed by Geeks for Geeks. It was literally bits and bites. So what we were able to do was create the digital music experience, not just the iPod, but iTunes and the iTunes music store over the, you know, first three, four years to package that all together to bring digital music to everyone. And so understanding your audience, understanding the why and the pain behind the why is so important.


And so at General Magic, we didn't know who we were making it for, right? We didn't understand the why because nobody had the pain. It was just interesting. And so if I look at most companies in Silicon Valley and around the world, cuz we're at Build Collective, we've invested in 200 companies all around the world. So we see this all the time. And what normally happens is you have incredible engineers, scientists, researchers who are building lots of what's, they're combining lots of new what's, and they're creating what's, and they're putting all these what things pieces together, but they don't really understand the why. And so, let me give you an analogy. In the case of making a movie, you start with a treatment and then you write a script and then you go and shoot the movie and then you edit the movie to hopefully hit the script slash the treatment to make it all work.


And you, so you make sure you lay this all out in the world of technology, usually you start with all these technology bits and bites and you put 'em all together like jigsaw puzzle and go, oh that's cool. And then at the end you go, who's it for? What's it about? And I see it in so many instances, what you have to do is you have to rethink it and you have to think more like a movie, make that treatment, who's the audience, what's the pain? What are all the details of it, what is the story arc? And then go off and create a press release. I love creating the press release cuz it's a page or a page and a half of incredibly condensed information that sets that North star for the entire project. So you know, whether you should have this feature or not, what the timeframe is, what the pricing or go to market is, who the audience is.


You need to have that upfront, just like a movie does. Too many types, people leave that to the end. They have a rough story, 20% of a story. They need to spend much more time on that while making the prototypes or whatever they're doing to make sure they're in lockstep, right? Just like their storyboards in movies and all that stuff. You do this same thing, you need storyboards for your website, storyboards for the overall design and user interface make the intangible tangible. And so that's what I'm always advocating and what we did much better at Apple in the early days and what's being done really professionally now 10 years later and now 20 years later, about really understanding what you're crafting, who you're crafting and the pain you're trying to solve and what's that painkiller. So that's really the difference between those two eras in my world.

Aarron Walter (14:46):

How do you discover that? Why though? So you can articulate it, but are a lot of why's out there. In fact, there were a whole lot of things that you could have worked on at Apple. Why is, you know, 10,000 songs in a pocket the most important why? And how do you stay connected to the consumer to discover that

Tony Fadell (15:07):

The things that I work on and the things that I'm most passionate about are problems that I can see and I can feel right? Usually the teams are making things that they can also see the problems. Okay, so you first start from where's the pain, where's the pain and what's the new technology that you can bring to that pain that then can change the way the products work? And so in this case, digital music obviously was one thing and compressed audio. So it's not just digital music cuz that was on CDs, but it was compressed audio. You could take a song and make it much smaller and then there was a pocketable hard drive that came out in January, 2001 from Shiba. And now all of a sudden here's a hard drive that fits in your pocket. You can take this compressed audio and put it on this little tiny hard drive and you can wrap it in a user interface, right?


And people were now just starting to rip CDs. So all of these things came together and you're like, of course I, I can't tell you how many times I was frustrated my car had 10 CDs and I never had all the CDs. I wanted to listen the same stuff over and over. So it was something we could feel. But always when I look at all of the companies that we invest in or we work with, it's always what is the pain you're trying to solve. Some people can invent new things and, and maybe it's not addressing a pain cuz it's a whole new market, but I always like to start from pain. And when it's pain then you understand other people have the pain, how big the market is. And then you can figure out how technology and new user interface, new customer journey, all that stuff can solve that pain, make it a painkiller and hopefully make it a superpower, right?


A superpower that it's just amazed, you know, you're just blown away that you can do this stuff now. And it's so easy to use. It's not superpower for geeks, it's a superpower for the rest of us. And so start with the pain, understand the new technologies, understand the societal timing as well, understand the technology, the infrastructure on it, and you bring all of those things together and you wanna be slightly early, not too early, but you also don't wanna be late because that means other people are getting there. So you wanna be slightly earlier when you're educating, you're the leader in it and everyone else is the followers and they're defined by the product that you're creating. That's really kind of in a nutshell how you do that. And you know, there's just, so whether it was Nest, you know, in terms of that pain or iPhone pain, which I described earlier, you can feel it and the way you feel that pain is by staying a beginner, not letting habituation take over.


I have a TED Talk all about this and too many times when we try a new product or new service or whatever it is, those first few days you're like, oh, that isn't right. That isn't right. Oh that did, that didn't feel right. And then we say, but it gives me enough of a painkiller that I'm willing to put that other pain aside that these new pains that come up. And so what you really wanna do is you wanna tap into that beginner's mindset and remember those little bumps along the way and smooth those out and make sure they're not there. That's really important.

Eli Woolery (18:11):

Tony, during your time at Apple you had the chance to work with some really influential folks, Steve Jobs obviously, and then Johnny Ive, and we've been lucky enough to have Johnny, ive in our class a few times and he's mentioned that he always starts his projects with writing, which kind of surprised me. And I'm curious and I, I wanted to read a little snippet from your book, the early chapter, you talk about having to build the iPhone twice and there's a, a little sketch and a drawing from Mark Perra and it says, describing the phone, this is a very personal object. It must be beautiful. It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction to find piece of jewelry brings. It will have a perceived value even when it's not being used. It should offer the comfort of a touchstone, the tactile satisfaction of a seashell, the enchantment of a crystal. Obviously all those things would be really, really hard to convey in a sketch or rendering. During your time at Apple, did you learn how to convey things through writing or is that something that you lean on other people for? Or what, what did you learn during your time there about that part of the craft?

Tony Fadell (19:06):

I have to use all forms. I have to use visual forms, I have to write down adjectives like I talked about writing down the press release and really kind of getting that language of what you're trying to do. The other things that I do with my teams is I actually go off and say what are the key reviews that we want people to say? So we actually go off and we draft what uh, Joanna Stern at Wall Street Journal might say about the product. We go off and say, what would ne Eli Patel at the Verge say, right? How would they think about this product given that we've read so many of their different articles and how they think about things. So we wanna also put our ourselves in the shoes of those reviewers and kind of taste makers out there to really understand what we're trying to go for viscerally, right?


So that we have a much broader sense of not just visually what it looks like, but all of the different senses touch even the audio. So we work on audio cues and, and so all of these different things come together and how you read it, you know what visions come into your brain when you read these things because that's how people, you know today we get a lot of videos, animations and stuff like that, but it's still really important before you get that these are like the storyboards, those treatments that we're talking about. Cause we're trying to craft an image of vision in your brain. And so you need those kinds of words to help you communicate that stuff before it becomes visual.

Aarron Walter (20:33):

One thing that seems kind of unique about what happened at Apple with these, you know, major milestone products that reshaped the world is there was a fluidity between engineering and design and business and you know, you've got Steve Jobs, Johnny I of yourself. Could you talk a little bit about like the partnership of what that's was like working together as a team and other folks that, that aren't mentioned here, but you know, oftentimes in a lot of companies, you know, everyone's kind of in their own little vertical, their silo of like engineering happens over here, we're gonna pass things over to design, make it look nice and then we'll pass it over to the business and they'll market it and sell the widget. But there's a fluidity that I think you're already kind of speaking to with the way that you're thinking about what a product could be. What's that partnership like? What was it like specifically with Steve Jobs, Johnny I, others, and what should that partnership look like?

Tony Fadell (21:32):

Sure. Well you know, I think it should be said that the first 10 years of my career in Silicon Valley was an utter failure, right? General Magic was one of 'em. But also Phillips, when I was making handhelds with some of the general magic technology and you know, you start to really understand sales and marketing. And so today, you know, when I envision a product or something I'm working on, uh, and I am working on a few products right now, I think about the circuit board design and the billboard design at the same time, right? You're always trying to marry the two because when you've invested in lost so many years of your life working on things and you're like, they go through a failure, you're like, I don't want this to be a failure. So you're always thinking about this multifaceted way of how the customer's looking at how we're gonna market go to market, what's the business, how are we gonna make money doing this?


All the various things. And so it's really incumbent on the leader of the team, you know, and, and I mean, you know, all the way from the c e O on down is to make sure you have a multidisciplinary team around so that everyone is being pulled forward at the same time too many times, like I said, like you're okay, engineers working on it. Working on it, okay, we're gonna add some design, okay, and now we're gonna pull in the marketers near the end. Now you need to start at the beginning and really when you're starting the program with a small team, I'm not saying a big team but a small team, it'll grow over time. But you're looking at everything, every single aspect and looking at all those rough edges. And cuz it's a sphere, it's not a line, it's, it's a sphere and you gotta look at it from every angle to polish that and make it look good.


And you need lots of different perspectives. So at Apple, especially on the iPod is where we started these things cuz they didn't really have those before for the Mac because the Mac was kind of, okay, it's a laptop, it's this, it's like what you said, it was kind of these okay engineering and then there's design over here in marketing and everybody kind of knew what it was. Whereas the iPod was a blend of all this software technology had to work on the Mac plus the music services plus all these different things. So we had to get everybody in the room and we would go every two weeks and we would go over all the aspects of it, right? Not just the engineering, but how would we go to market, all of these things, the finances. And we were all working together to look at all these different angles and try to understand each person's point of view and try to work it out.


I'm not saying it was easy and I'm not saying it wasn't political and I'm not saying, you know, there wasn't a lot of arm wrestling going on. There was, but pulling everybody in and having that creative conflict is what made it better because we were all working for the most part, most people were working on for what's was best for the customer, not what was best for their team or their leader egos. And so you pull it all together and then you know, you work on it and you make sure you have that meeting that always brings people together so that no one feels left out, everyone's contributing, not everyone has a great idea or not everyone's ideas will be taken, but everyone's getting a really good view of all the different things, aspects that have to come together and really be polished to pull off a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional product cuz it, like I said, it was hardware, software, services, all of these things. It wasn't just one piece of hardware that third party software got loaded on and you know, the Mac, it was pretty much a kind of a rote kind of, you know, assembly line kind of process. This was very, very different. And then we applied it again to then the iPhone.

Aarron Walter (25:01):

We'll return to the conversation after this quick break.


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Eli Woolery (28:26):

Let's dive a little bit into the conflict side of things and you have a section in your book where you talk about kinda navigating politics and the kind of assholes you might encounter, for lack of a better word, <laugh>. And we don't have to go through the whole taxonomy, but, but maybe you could help us understand the difference between, you know, the asshole and the asshole at quotes, because there seems to be these two major groupings.

Tony Fadell (28:47):

Sure. Well the, the funny thing was, you know, at some point we were getting done with the book and everything and I got the index finally, and like when you look, it's like a quarter of one page of the index is all the asshole. Definitely. I was like, wow, that's the very uh, index entry. Anyway. So what's really the difference? And it really boils down to, you know, we're all gonna work with assholes over the time and you know, you've heard through various third party accounts that Steve might have been one or, or I have been one or any of you have to really understand the motivation of the person first and foremost. Is this about their ego? Are they pushing other people down to make themselves feel better? Or are they really trying to do the right thing for the customer and pushing the team to really raise themselves up, not pushing them down, but raise themselves up to deliver what the customer is going to expect from that brand experience that they've come to appreciate from that company or from the new company you're trying to create and trying to have that kind of impression.


And so really you have to look at the motivation. Now you can have mission, and I call 'em mission driven assholes. I'm one of 'em, there's great days and there's other days when you're gonna be like, what the hell's going on here? Why aren't we getting this right? And you dive into details, but it's really about the customer, the customer experience and getting it right. Now if a mission-driven asshole is sitting there and criticizing or judging you as a person saying you're fucked up and you're not doing this right, then they're a ego-driven asshole. They're not mission driven anymore. So you can critique the work, but you can't judge the person. Okay, you can't have that kind of thing. You gotta say we're, we're raising people up. You can challenge people, you can say, look at these details, we have to get 'em right. Why aren't we getting this done?


But don't judge the person or the team and say, you'll never do it. You're worthless. Get outta my way. That is an ego-driven asshole. So again, mission driven. If you can see that and you get to work with those people, you may hate it, you may hate every day working with that person, but you know what, when you look back 10 years from now and you, if you've done something that's of importance, you're gonna remember that because typically that person mission driven is pushing you to do better work than you thought you could do. And you deliver that work and you grow through it. It's kind of like teenagers when you're a parent. You know, when you have teenagers, you're sitting there pushing 'em, pushing, pushing, they're like, ah, I hate you and fuck off dad and blah blah blah and da da da and you know, I hate you.


And then 10 or 15 years they might come back and go, you know what, thank you. You pushed me. I didn't see myself, I didn't, I hated when you did it, but thank you. And I've had so many people come back to me over the course of my career saying thank you. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times I was more wrapped up in my insecurities of my ego than really seeing what you were helping me to do. And that's what a mentor or coach does is really push people beyond their self-imposed limits to bring the best out of them and then they do stuff they never thought they could possibly do. And so it's not just building the product, but it's building that culture and building that person and that team about self-improvement all the time and, and going to that level of detail that's so required to deliver these seamless experiences, these unforgettable experiences for the customers that use the products.

Aarron Walter (32:10):

Tony, I I hope you're right about the teenagers coming back when they've grown up and gotten perspective and respecting the investment that we've made in, in them over

Tony Fadell (32:18):

Time. Well I hope so too. I got teenagers right now and believe me, I get it every day. So I, I'm just fingers cross, I keep hearing it from all the older parents out there that yeah, you'll see. So I, you know, I hope it, yeah, I'm hoping,

Aarron Walter (32:30):

But your metaphor is apt and there's something you said in the book that just really struck me. You said the best teams are multi-generational. And I think that given the age of our industry, you know, in the grand scheme of things, it's relatively young software space been around for a while, but now we've got more people who are in their fifties and sixties who have a ton of experience in this space. And often because software is seen as a young person's game, they're cast off seen as like, okay, sort of spent, talk to us about the value of a multi-generational team.

Tony Fadell (33:09):

So when I say multi-generational, that goes all the way from new grads or even people in college all the way on up to people who are older like myself and even older than me, you have different perspectives again, and that's not just multi-gen, I'm also always talking about multi-ethnicity, those kinds of things, multi-gender teams as well. So I'm looking at all the aspects, not just, you know, years of experience so to speak. You have different eyes at designing when you're younger versus when you're older. Think about this, I know for a fact there's people in Silicon Valley who hit the jackpot before they were married, building tools or building social sites or whatever before they were married, before they had kids. And now that they have kids, they look at the products they designed and go, oh, I didn't know we were doing this to societies or to families or to kids, right?


Because when you're younger, all you wanna do is individuate away from your parents. I want what I want and I want it now. I don't care about the society at large, I don't care about the families involved, I don't care, I just want what I want because they're individuating. But when you get older, you start going, wait a second, we're part of a much more vast network of things and uh, people, right? And societies and communities and we have to support them as well as supporting our own individual needs and our family needs. And so when you look through those different lenses, that's a multi-generational team as well as multi-gender team or ethnicities for that matter. And so when you start to understand that and you understand that these types of design teams, engineering teams can bring their points of view to bear and help make the product better for a much wider audience and maybe also avoid some of the pitfalls that we've seen with some of these social networks or whatever, like oversharing or addictive behavior, those kinds of things, you're gonna have a much more robust and better product out of the door as opposed to you cast the die early and then all of a sudden you're stuck and you can't change it because oh my god, I, I can't change.


Like we see what's going on with Twitter, we can't change Twitter because we can't da da, you know? Well yeah of course you can, but it's a lot harder to do. So having those teams early from just a customer's perspective and product design perspective and engineering perspective is great. Now the other thing to remember is that you know, you get a lot of highly performant teams and these people are like, I only wanna hire experienced people. They gotta have 10 years experience, 15 years experience. It's like, look who bet on you when you came outta school, if nobody was betting on people coming outta school or in school, how did you get here? So you gotta remember that you have to give back, right? You might not be a mentor but you might be a manager and you have to build those people up because you remember when you were full of all that vigor and piss and all that shit and you're like, oh my god, I'm gonna, you know, change the world and you can harness that energy.


Yeah, they're gonna be all over the map and, but you're gonna harness that energy and so you have to remember that you gotta get them also outta school. You're not gonna get everybody with 10 years of experience cuz your job as a manager, as leader is to build a team and to build the next generation so that generation goes on to build the next generation because we are not all gonna be in the same company for the whole time in our life. And you have to figure out how to make these multi-generational kind of hiring things. The other thing is when you also get older people, they actually would like to train or work with the younger people cuz the older people want younger people around so they feel younger and they can learn more about what the younger people are doing and vice versa. Cause the younger people wanna learn about all the experience, what the experienced people have and see through their eyes. So it's, it's really a rich tapestry of ethnicity, gender, of you know, of various ages that come together to build a culture. We don't have monoculture, you know societies, if they do, they fall over and fail. Our society is our multi-generation, our customer base, our multi-generational, you should have a team that reflects that as well.

Eli Woolery (37:12):

So Tony, you were talking about impact and how you might think differently about impact along the arc of your career when you're at Nest, you developed this product that definitely had these conservation impacts and probably spurred the industry to think about that more. But now you're even more focused on things like climate. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you're doing right now with the Build Climate Fund.

Tony Fadell (37:31):

Well it, it's not just to build climate fund, it's all the build collective and all the money. We've been investing in companies all around the world. But, and this was something that, you know, after I had kids, I woke up and I was like wait a second, I need to do more and more for the future generations, my kids and their kids and making sure we leave a planet here because the climate crisis was real in 2000 and it's very real now if you can't tell it's very real and it's affecting everyone on the planet. So it's gonna be up to us to fix the problems that our generations before us did it. And so if you look at it, it's not just a problem but it's an opportunity. This is the biggest opportunity. We're gonna reboot the planet. Everything that flies, floats, moves on land is all gonna change.


All the materials and how we get them today, how we make our food, how we process our food, how we do all that stuff is changing as well. So many things are changing all around us and are gonna need to change around us that it's an incredible opportunity. Just think about if you were, you know, living in the early 19 hundreds or the late 1880s when certain cities were alike, we're talking now the whole globe at once has to do this. So there's so much opportunity and so that's what's so wonderful being at Build Collective and the team that we have is that we get to look in the future 5, 10, 15 years and we're working on things like, you know, agriculture, technology, materials technology, biotechnology, medical and health technology. We're looking at silicon and sensors, all these different things. Mobility we're doing all the aviation too and space.


And so you get to look at all of these new technologies and when you start to see what's under the hood and the incredible teams, you can only be optimistic and hopeful for the future that we're gonna be able to get past this climate crisis that, you know, that we were raised in and, and we're shepherding now, but we can get outta, there is a technology, we just need the will and the brains to surround it. Just like we created the planet 1.0 back in the, you know, industrialization 1.0, we can do industrialization 2.0 and do it the right way with tremendous teams. So I'm seeing things like, you know how we take small and medium sized farmers in Indonesian and Latin America and these are aquaculture farmers and how you can have more healthy fish or shrimp or shellfish. How we can make those better products better for the planet.


Don't destroy the mangroves, don't have all the methane problems, the small farmers, big ag or big aqua doesn't come in and trash everything. There's so many things. We have diamonds without mine, meat without cows leather, without cows milk, without cows. We have, I, you know, I could just go down the list of 200 plus companies and it's just so rewarding and we get to work with the best teams and so this is a huge thrust for us. It's not gonna end. This is a 30, 40, 50 year kind of thing. And the next generation blue chip stocks like we thought of like the petroleum companies, these healthcare companies, mobility companies that were created in the twenties, thirties, forties back in the day, you know, before we were born and they've been around forever. Those companies are going to be built now and they are being built now.


We're seeing Tesla, we're seeing SpaceX, we're seeing stuff like that being built now and those are gonna be the next blue chip companies of the next 50 and a hundred years because they're doing them in the right way and they're worldwide at the same time. This is just an a tremendous time to be alive. Even though we have a pain, this is a great time to, you know, bring the painkillers cause we do have the technology. We just need the will and the brains and the effort put behind it to really make the transition happen.

Aarron Walter (41:10):

We talked earlier about product timing and you wanna be just ahead of when product is needed. One of the often articulated fears in the news media is that technology won't be able to save us with respect to climate. What are your views about, you know, all of these different things that you're investing in and supporting? Will they arrive in time and which one is gonna have potentially the greatest impact?

Tony Fadell (41:37):

Well first, you know, you can read the media all day long and yeah we can say the sky's falling and oh there's no hope for us or all you know, do we all wanna live like that? Do we really wanna think we don't have any hope and there's no optimism. Like if that's the case, we might as well just pack it up now and you know, go drink the Jamestown Kool-Aid and just call it a day. So first like it's the human spirit, we can do this. Okay, the second thing is with a lot of shit's gonna fail, think about all the patents, all the things, the companies that were created. You know, there was Westinghouse, you know, there's Tesla versus you know, general Electric and all of this different stuff where AC and DC Power wa, you know, DC power died, there's gonna be a lot of disasters along the way, but that's how we learn and move.


So no, not we're gonna go, every single move we make is gonna be exactly successful and it's gonna turn out the way we want, but we have to try. If we don't try, we might as well just give up. But that said, I've seen tremendous amount of technologies in energy, right? So we already have wind and solar, we know it works. I'm already seeing grid scale batteries that are don't hurt the planet that are, you know, iron, salt batteries that we can have. So we can have these base load generating power supplies all around the world distributed and we can do that quickly. We're seeing battery recycling happening. So every time in Europe, every time we see a new battery factory going up lithium ion or what have you, you have to put a batteries recycling factory up and those battery or materials can be reused 9900% of the time over and over and over for generations to come.


So there is no one silver bullet to this. We have to decarbonize on all angles, transportation materials, energy, travel, food systems, all of these things are gonna cause a reboot of everything and there's no one silver bullet. Okay? Yeah. And we're gonna also have to have climate adaptation as well and there's some things to do around that. But I'm seeing incredible things in remediation of CO2 in the environment. I just got off a call where I'm helping the methane SAT program where we're down on a satellite looking at the planet and we're finding all the methane leaks, not just big ones, but targeting methane emissions all around the globe every day. And that's going up very, very soon and it's working and it's working well. So we can go and plug those gaps where we have methane leaking hydrogen economy, I'm doing a lot on hydrogen, not just transportation but hydrogen's incredible for steel, for other materials, for fertilizers, that's big.


I'm dealing with the plastics problem and how we're gonna actually turn from plastics to something that's really much better for our environment and for our planet and for ourselves. So all of these things can be tackled. So there is no one silver bullet and it's gonna take all of us because look, at the end of the day, if you are not working to find a solution it, that doesn't mean that you're working on it. Like at a company that's working on specific climate change, you know technologies, I'm talking, you just go to your business every day or how you select your food or how you buy things. If you're not part of the movement to fix the planet, you are part of the problem. So are you part of the solution or you're part of the problem? If you're apathetic and you say, oh it's never gonna get fixed, blah blah, you are part of the problem.


So which is it? Are you gonna be part of the solution or you part of the problem? You can't be indifferent. You can't be apathetic. This is about yourselves and our future generation. You need to get engaged and learn. Everyone can do something. Everyone at any part of the social economic strata, I understand people in India, people in other places of the world might have difficulties with that and we're gonna share the load. We're seeing a cop 27 right now. Countries like Switzerland is now starting to look at how do we funnel more money to these lower GDP P countries so that they can start to adopt the right green efforts so that they don't go the same way we did. So again, are you part of the problem or you part of the solution? You can't be indifferent.

Eli Woolery (45:49):

So kind of a two-part question. The first one is in an interview, I think it was with Tim Ferris, you're talking, there's a lot of things that are just not that sexy necessarily to work on in this realm. Like switches, there's a lot of inefficiencies with switches. How do you build a team when maybe the product itself isn't a sexy thing like an electric car, but it's a really important problem that you're working on?

Tony Fadell (46:11):

Well I think the biggest thing is to get people who are aligned with the mission. You know, we always wanna do things where we touch or you know, it's gotta be something like, like a, a rocket or a plane or whatever. And sure that is sexy, but I've been able to get like really excited by next generation sensors that you are hidden or radar or you know, satellites you don't see. But you have to have that mindset. You have to go with people who do believe in the mission. So if there are people who are like apathetic, like yeah, I'm just, I'm just coming into work, then they're not for that job. Like when I wanna build a team, I go, what do you wanna learn? What do you curious? I don't care that they just have a heartbeat and have experience. I wanna know that they're in it for a reason.


Why are they curious? Why do they wanna come to this company? Why do they want to work on this project if it's just to get a title or a salary or whatever? I don't want 'em, I want people who are gonna deliver and bring their whole self because they're so curious and they're passionate about learning and hopefully, you know, solving a problem. So as far as I'm concerned, you gotta make sure your team's there and and just talk to people one-on-one or just say, are you in? Because if they're not, move 'em aside. Get people who are there. So you get to pick your teams, you know, in this case where we're in this financial crisis moment, you know, you can say, oh God, we're never gonna get out of it. I've been through three financial crises in my career and you know what, we've gotten past all of them and they got even better on the upside from the downside.


You know, I was there with like literally firing my friends from my company just before the iPod happened, right? So look, it's just the pendulum is swinging. Alright? And guess what? The best products, the best companies were built in downturns. Because you can get the best people who really wanna do something, wanna make change happen. The iPod, Google, Facebook, they were all built during the financial crisis of 2000. The internet wipe out when everyone's like, the Internet's gonna ha, nothing's gonna happen. 2008, oh my god, the next financial crisis. Now everyone's like, oh my god, the next financial crisis. There are so many amazing companies out there to fund, to work with right now. Even in this crisis. I was just got off a phone with a different company and they're like, we just got term sheets, we've got this incredible round coming together because they're making something that matters that's different.


That's not just some widget that just seems cool, there's a reason for it. They're killing a pain and hopefully bringing a superpower. You can in this environment find those companies. They do exist. Those teams with passion exist and the teams that are being formed make sure the people on there have that passion. Who wanna go through those tough days and nights and weekends when things aren't gonna work because it's not gonna be all up into the left. You're going to go through tough times if you're doing anything that's innovative because you don't know what you don't know. And that's what's exciting. A rollercoaster ride that doesn't have ups and downs. Jesus, that's not fun. And that's what life is and that's what creating and building is. If you're truly innovating and you're not just maintaining and you know, punching the clock.

Aarron Walter (49:15):

Tony, it's so inspiring to see that despite all the amazing things you did early in your career, like it seems like that pales in comparison to where you're headed now. Like these are big, big meaty problems and fun people to collaborate with. Clearly you're inspired by the work that you're doing, it's captured in your book and your fund. But what's inspiring you today? Anything you're reading, listening to watching that has you passionate again?

Tony Fadell (49:42):

So, you know, I, I have so many different interests, but right now I'm really diving into the whole carbon credits and all of the stuff around, you know, biomass and what we can do with biomass. Not creating new biomass to then suck up carbon, but taking the waste biomass that we have and locking the carbon in and getting carbon credits for that. Not just planting trees. We can do that. I want the things where there's waste today. Like I love mining the waste streams that we have trash to treasure. There is so much out there, we don't have to make more stuff, we're making tons of waste. But that waste can turn into treasure for the climate for business and it can become a win-win win in so many areas. So I'm looking at waste streams and trying to create a circular economy in so many different areas.


And so I'm learning about all of that stuff and about the financial nudges that we can have to get these businesses to see that there is a there, there and that it is green business. And green means not just good for the planet, but good for their business. Cuz if you look at the hydrogen economy, if it's applied rate, those businesses are cheaper for CapEx and they make more money, they're actually better for gross margins. So if you look overall, there's so many new technologies that if applied rate businesses get healthier and they become circular for the planet. So I could just go on and on, but it's just so rewarding when you can see that there are such obvious things that we're bringing from the 1920s and thirties that we already know about, but now we actually have the will and the financing and the backing to say now we can go and address it. A lot of this stuff is known stuff

Eli Woolery (51:26):

Where can people learn more about the work that you're doing, your fund book,

Tony Fadell (51:31):

You can go to to see some of the stuff that we're doing, all that. Podcasts like this, doing a lot of these podcasts. It's wonderful. Thank you again for having me on doing that. We have a whole, a list of companies, not a complete list, but a list of companies we're having that we're there and you know, always reach out on LinkedIn or DM us on Twitter. We are always looking for great talent to go put into all these businesses and you're gonna hear a lot more from us in the coming years because we're really amping it up and trying to get the word out because we all need to get the word out about the hope and about the technology that we can use to help save ourselves.

Aarron Walter (52:08):


Eli Woolery (52:09):

Tony, thanks so much. Thanks for the work that you do and thanks so much for being on the show.

Tony Fadell (52:13):

Eli Aaron, thank you so much for having me on it. It was really wonderful and thanks for letting me, uh, drone on and be passionate cuz this is what I love to do.

Aarron Walter (52:24):

Eli and I love producing this podcast, but sometimes we find ourselves wondering what sort of feedback does our audience have? How could we improve the show? Maybe you could help us by taking just a couple minutes to complete a survey, answering a few questions about your thoughts about the show, sharing your feedback, and telling us a little bit about you. To take the survey, just go to dbt That's Our thanks in advance for completing the survey. It'll really help us improve the show. This episode was produced by Eli Wallie and me, Aaron Walter with engineering and production support from Brian PA of Pacific Audio. If you found this episode useful, we hope that you'll leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to finer shows, or simply drop a link to the show in your team Slack channel design It'll really help others discover the show. Until next time.

Design Better
Design Better
Design Better co-hosts Eli Woolery and Aarron Walter explore the intersection of design, technology, and the creative process through conversations with inspiring guests across many creative fields. Whether you’re design curious or a design pro, Design Better is guaranteed to inspire and inform. Episodes are released semi-weekly for free subscribers, weekly for premium subscribers. Vanity Fair calls Design Better, “sharp, to the point, and full of incredibly valuable information for anyone looking to better understand how to build a more innovative world.”