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

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


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.  

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About Jodie Hopperton

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