What can product teams learn from the inventor of the iPod and iPhone?

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Hi there. I hope you are having a great week. In this newsletter, I’m sharing some takeaways from the legendary Tony Fadell and three big lessons on organisation and team structure. I hope it’s helpful to you.

If you have any questions or comments, you can e-mail me directly at jodie.hopperton@inma.org.

Thanks, Jodie

Product lessons from the inventor of the iPod and iPhone

I was listening to a Q&A with Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod and iPhone, as part of a tour to promote his new book Build. With such an impressive track record with Apple and beyond, I was curious what he had to say and how this may relate to media companies.

Here are a few takeaways:

The best question he was asked was to explain how he is an advocate for data-driven decisions, yet some of his best products came from opinion. He acknowledges that most product decisions should be data driven — except for version 1 of a product and perhaps a subsequent version or two. For a brand new product, it’s likely that the data doesn’t exist. Steve Jobs has a famous quote that if Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse, not a car. 

Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod and iPhone, offers product lessons that remain relevant.
Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod and iPhone, offers product lessons that remain relevant.

Version 1 of any new product will be based on taste, opinion, and gut feel on customer insights from the core team. He said the core team for a brand new product is usually product, design, UX, and maybe engineering. 

“A lot of time we won’t know,” he said, but we had to go and try it. This is not the time for long, collaborative-driven consensus. The team just needs to make it happen. You never get to v2 v3 or more without taking some risks on v1.

He got to take risks as he was protected by Steve Jobs. He said that as CEO, Steve told him if he came across resistance from other execs (and there was a lot of resistance for the iPod), come to him. Steve would then speak to that exec and tell them that they needed to support this project and give it their all, no matter their personal views. Without that protection, these products would never get off the ground. This reinforces the 7 steps change team mindsets to encourage product innovation that I wrote about last year. 

Something else that struck me was the big bet they took with the iPhone.

Now we know that it worked out and that their hypothesis that the iPhone market was much larger than the iPod market was correct. But at the time, it was a big leadership bet to cannibalise a stable business stream. Fadell shared that they had to make that existential call to get to the market that was going to be dominant.

He acknowledged it was a hard call, but the audience was changing and they needed to meet it. The lesson here is that to stay relevant, leadership needs to go after new audiences in new markets — and that means taking some risks. 

One last point he made (based on a whole chapter in his book) is that companies should not try to keep people in the office if they want to have creative products. People need to be outside the office and take inspiration from many different influences. If everyone is in the office all the time, you get to “group think,” which will not help us solve problems for the business or our customers.  

Date for the Diary: Thursday, May 19

The 2.5-hour product module as part of the INMA World Congress will give a top-down view on some of today’s big issues. We have a spectacular line up, so I hope you can join us. 

Culture and clear goals are essential for a strong product culture 

In the last couple of weeks, I have spoken to two leaders about how product can be infused into an organisation. This week, I spoke to an HR executive who is looking at how to reorganise, ensuring product thinking is engrained in the organisation.

I wish there was a silver bullet for product, but there simply isn’t. The main reason for this is culture. Even with the best structure in the world, it only works if there is a culture of transparency, shared goals, and goodwill. 

Four common organisational structures.
Four common organisational structures.

Here are a few things to consider when looking at organisation structures and how teams work together:

  1. There's been a lot of change already. Only 20 years ago, publishers had one product. Now they have many — most of which have been developed within those 20 years. The organisation was naturally siloed, and there was a wall with editorial (mostly referred to as church and state where I come from). At the first media company I worked for, you couldn’t get on to the editorial floor if you worked in advertising. The badges simply didn't work. Why should you care? Because a LOT has changed in 20 years, and the first step is recognition that the organisations being built today are very different to how they were.

  2. Clear goals and missions are essential. Everyone in the organisation — yes everyone — should have a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve as individuals and teams and how those wrap up into the company objectives. These should be simple and easy for anyone to articulate. Most companies I speak to use OKRs (summary of the model here), which are extremely effective. Just one thing to look out for: In large organisations, OKRs are tiered down. It’s helpful to have some kind of single oversight of OKRs at all levels to make sure they truly work together and get dont down, or worse, start conflicting.

  3. Find a single source of truth for metrics. Once you know what the goals are, ensure they are measurable and that you are all using the same systems to measure them. I guarantee people will be able to find statistics to back up pretty much anything given the chance. So find a system that works for you, and make sure everyone has access to it. It’s helpful for people to have access to data if they know what they are looking at, so a clear presentation and explanation will be needed for this to work well. 

If you want to dig deeper into different types of structure, take a look at the INMA report How Product Is Leading Medias New Growth Path (free to INMA members). Here you will find a few examples that may work best for you based on organisation size, number of brands, and revenue models. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you would like to discuss any of this. 

Tweet of the week

At the INMA World Congress last week, The Economist shared its approach to building the foundations of data. Sometimes building a new environment makes more sense than adapting what is already there. See tweet here.

Recommended reading

  • I’m reading Build, as mentioned above, and am absolutely loving it. It’s so much fun and packed with practical advice from years of hard earned lessons. 

Tony Fadell's book is worth the read.
Tony Fadell's book is worth the read.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at jodie.hopperton@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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