Letter #7: Tony Fadell (2016)

How to Reinvent the Ordinary

Hi there! I go by KG, and I love studying the history of business and investing. I’ll be sharing some notes from one Investor/Shareholder letter per weekday (mostly from my compilations) here.

Today’s notes are on Tony Fadell’s 2016 essay: How to Reinvent the Ordinary. Tony was a core member of General Magic, co-inventor of the iPod, founder of Nest, chief of everything at Future Shape, and one of my personal heroes. He’s a prolific engineer with over 300 patents, and in his own words, “a product guy, marketer, CEO, entrepreneur, investor and mentor. As a devoted family man, he wants to leave the world in a better shape for his kids.”

You can find this essay on Time’s website here.

If you have any thoughts on what you’d like to see, let me know!


How do you take something mundane, that most of us overlook, and turn it into something attractive and compelling? Something we can’t help but notice—and can’t resist buying? It’s a question every product designer tries to answer every day—and it’s one I’ve struggled with for my entire adult life.

  • A question as old as time — going back to alchemists trying to turn lead into gold. Design is modern-day alchemy.

The first step is deceptively simple: To improve the ordinary, we need to notice it. We have to fight back against our brain’s natural tendency to “habituate” or get used to the things we see every day, even if those things don’t work as well as they should.

  • Step 1: Notice any imperfection — reminds me of the quote “the first step to solve any problem is to acknowledge it”

  • Usually, I hear that habits are good — habits make you efficient. Fadell seems to argue that although habits make you efficient, they kill your creativity. I guess it really depends on what you habituate.

Consider the little stickers on pieces of fruit at the grocery store. Those stickers weren’t there when I was a kid. But at some point, someone decided to label produce in order to make it easier to check out. Now we have to peel off the stickers and throw them away before we can even take a bite. It’s an unnecessary step. It’s annoying. But we do it so often that we don’t even notice anymore.

  • It’s a pain in the ass, but we do it automatically

  • What even is the point of the little stickers? (Well, I guess there is some use… at least apparently they’re safe to eat)

It’s also important to recognize the difference between a painkiller and a vitamin. Would solving a problem make someone’s life a lot better right away? Or would it just improve things in small ways over time? Smartphones started as a painkiller: They were miles beyond the camera phones we had been used to. But today, every new smartphone is a vitamin: Just a little bit better than the last version. Vitamins represent small steps forward. Painkillers are giant leaps.

  • Know what type of problem you’re solving

  • You don’t HAVE to always go for painkillers, but recognize when you’re going for vitamins — each have their own process

  • Ultimately it’s a personal choice of preference — Tony seems to love the cutting edge painkillers. You’ll notice he’s not still working on smartphones today

But let’s say we’ve done that. We’ve noticed a major pain point that others seem to have missed. The next question is: Do we have the disruptive technology to do something about it? And is that technology unique enough that it allows us to seize the advantage over others in the market?

  • Is the timing right? — Tony was part of General Magic team, which tried to build the iPhone 15 years too early… before the technology was ready

  • He tried again at Phillips before ultimately succeeding at Apple — he failed twice, but when the technology was ready, he ran with it, developing and shipping the iPod in less than a year.

  • Understand competitive dynamics — vitamins are much more competitive

I remember trying to build a virtual-reality helmet and gloves as part of a class project at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. In an era of fuzzy VHS tapes and cathode ray TVs, everyone wanted a fully immersive experience. The problem was that we didn’t have the technology to make VR good enough. Today, that’s changing, which is why companies like Oculus and Google, using the latest displays, chips and software, believe they can finally bring high-quality VR to the masses.

  • Again: timing matters

  • Work on fun stuff, but move on if the time isn’t right

Then there’s the other side of the equation: What if people just aren’t ready? Technology grows exponentially, faster and faster all the time. And yet, too often, our social appetite for change is more linear, advancing slowly. What if they don’t match up?

  • Technology changes fast, people change slow

  • “Move fast and break things, apologize later”

  • Find product-market fit.

My first job in Silicon Valley was at a company called General Magic, working with the team that built the original Macintosh to develop one of the earliest hand-held computers. Many of the features we came up with—like mobile email, online shopping and downloadable apps—would reappear in the iPhone 20 years later. But consumers didn’t know what to do with them at the time. It was hard to sell apps to people who had never had a cell phone and just wanted a digital address book (which, incidentally, is why Palm was so successful).

  • Eh, it wasn’t just that the consumers didn’t know what to do with it. Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple) wanted one, but the technology just wasn’t there

  • Product education is key: software apps take note — have a good onboarding process

  • Apple avoided this issue by educating partner networks and later on setting up Genius Bars to help people get started immediately after buying

But once in a rare while, the stars align. Disruptive technology improves at the same time consumers are ready for it—and a company is able to build a product that appeals to the masses.

  • Product-market fit is magical

I remember pitching Steve Jobs on the iPod for the first time. It was clear that nobody loved dragging a binder full of CDs around, and Apple had a proprietary hard drive that made it possible to carry 1,000 songs in your pocket. The conditions were right. And so far, other companies were focusing their products solely on the geeks.

  • Follow the nerds and geeks — take a look at science fiction, video games, comic books. People who loved these were made fun of, yet now we have FaZe Clan and 100Thieves, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc. They are our early adopters and innovators

  • I follow several scientists/authors who consistently write papers/books that blow up 10-15 years after publishing — follow them to see where the future is

That’s how Apple succeeded. We didn’t just make a great mp3 player. We made a beautiful one. We made the experience of buying songs fun and easy. We helped people remember the pain they were leaving behind—marketing the iPod in a way that made it look like a sexy solution. We thought about the consumer experience from start to finish—and we did it in a way that no other company could easily duplicate.

  • What is your competitive advantage? Apple was thoughtful (start to finish), and focused on doing the stuff only they could do

  • Beauty (design) matters

  • Make the experience fun

There’s a reason so many ordinary, annoying things stay the same for so many years. Noticing them is hard. Introducing new technology at the right time is even harder. Building a unique product that lots of people want to buy is hardest of all. But if everything comes together, magic can happen—and the world can change in ways we never could have imagined.

  • Not all products “make the world a better place,” but when they do, they seem like, no, they are, magical. They change the world.

  • Wrap-up

    • Step 1: Notice the problem

    • Step 2: Make sure the technology needed is ready

    • Step 3: Make sure people actually want/need the product


If you’ve got any thoughts, questions, or feedback, please drop me a line - I would love to chat! You can find me on twitter at @kgao1412 or my email at kevin@12mv2.com.

All compilations here.