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Book Summary: Build – An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making

Build (2022) is a self-styled “mentor in a box” – an encyclopedia of business advice about everything from getting a job and managing a team to telling a story around your product and being a successful CEO. A mentor is an absolute must-have for anyone who aspires to start and run a business – but not everyone has one available right away. That’s what Build is for.

Introduction: Straightforward advice on how to build products, businesses, and careers.

It’s midnight. You’re in bed, tossing and turning, on the verge of panic. Your company is growing, and you’re scared that its culture is suddenly going to vanish. Or you’re working on the marketing for your latest product, and you’re terrified of screwing it up.

There, in the middle of the night, you feel a sudden urge to call up your mentor and ask him for advice.

But wait, you think. First of all, it’s midnight – and second of all, I don’t have a mentor.

That’s where Tony Fadell, and this summary, come into the picture. Tony is the founder of several startups. He worked on the creation of the iPod, the iPhone, and the Nest connected home system. But he’s also familiar with that late-night panic feeling – and is determined to help other people transform their own self-doubt into success.

In this summary, you’ll find a collection of Tony’s hard-fought learnings, gained throughout his career and gathered here for you in a kind of business-building toolkit. We’ll examine a few of those tools in more detail and offer advice around how to build a career, a product, a team, and a company. Let’s dive in.

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • who actually made the first iPhone;
  • why your product should be a painkiller, not a vitamin; and
  • why you should avoid massages at work.

Book Summary: Build - An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making

Use your early adulthood to do as much as you can, fail, and learn from it.

Ever heard of the first company to make the iPhone? If you’ve already got Apple in mind, think again.

Okay, so this product wasn’t exactly called iPhone – it was called Magic Link. But it shared many of the same functions as our modern-day smartphones. It came complete with a touchscreen, email, apps, games, a way to buy plane tickets, even animated emojis. The only problem was, that at the time of its release in 1994, no one wanted it. It was a cool toy for geeks, sure, but other people had no need for it.

The company who made this product was called General Magic. And Tony spent four years with them, working on the destined-for-failure Magic Link. But Tony doesn’t regret the experience at all, because it helped him to discover what he was truly passionate about. He threw himself into the company, often spending up to 120 hours per week working.

Now, although we’re not advising you to do this, it is true that when we find the thing we’re passionate about, we naturally want to throw ourselves into the work more. And, in order to learn as much as we can, we will sometimes stay late, or come in early, or occasionally work during weekends and holidays.

Early adulthood is the perfect time to take big strides toward your career goals – even if there are plenty of stumbles along the way. In fact, the only real obstacle that will prevent you from finding success, if you’re not careful, is inaction. If you decide not to take any path at all, you’ll never end up discovering what is out there that interests you.

Early adulthood is a good time to take risks and try out different career options. You’ll likely have fewer family members, assets, and social standing that you risk losing.

And, like Tony, if you’ve already found the work that brings you joy, the best thing you can do is follow that instinct. Once Tony discovered the world of smartphones, he was hooked; his interest eventually led him to work at Apple, where he was part of a team working on the iPod and then the iPhone.

After you’ve found the thing you’re passionate about in life – the thing you want to devote your time to – the next step is finding other people who share your passion. Make friends, find a mentor, and for goodness’ sake, get a job. This is your chance to make a dent in the world, to devote your precious time to something meaningful. You don’t have to shoot for the stars right away. But you should determine what you want to learn and the types of people you want to work with. From there, you’ll begin discovering the resources you’ll need to build whatever it is you want to build.

Managing a team is all about steering it in the right direction without micromanaging.

Steve Jobs had a jeweler’s eye for detail – in a literal sense. Tony remembers watching Jobs whipping out a jeweler’s loupe and using it to inspect individual pixels on a screen to identify errors in the user interface graphics. For Jobs, every pixel, every piece of the product, every word on the packaging had to be perfect.

Some people might apply the term “micromanaging” to this kind of behavior. Not Tony. In fact, he feels that what Jobs did is exactly what managers should be doing: Setting an example for the level of care and detail you expect from your team. Not letting anyone slide into mediocrity.

Another key point about managing is that you’re no longer doing the same job you did as an individual contributor. Instead, you’re helping other people do your old job well. And if you do find yourself spending most of your time doing your old job, it probably means something is wrong.

So how can you be sure to keep your focus on managing? For starters, forget about how your team is going to reach your desired outcomes. Instead, focus on the outcomes themselves – creating a great product, for instance. Focus on product development, design, marketing, and sales processes. Put specific individuals in charge of those processes. And then . . . let your team do what they do best.

Regular meetings are a time for you to check in with your team members and ensure that everything is moving in the right direction – toward your top milestones. You should have a clear sense of everything you need to do in order to reach those goals. As a manager, along with keeping note of these milestones, consider keeping a list of your worries around each project and each person so you can see which areas require more of your attention.

Importantly, your notes should also include a section for ideas – for instance, around how to improve your current product or how to make your team’s work-life smoother and more enjoyable. Keeping this list will inspire and excite you. It will also show the team that you pay attention to them and that their thoughts and opinions matter. Remember, a key aspect of management is sharing your mission and your passion with your team.

When advocating for your product, always focus on the “why.”

In 2007, Steve Jobs gave his famous speech about the iPhone. He introduced the three different categories that each phone would combine: a widescreen iPod, a mobile phone, and an internet communications device. This is the part of the speech everyone remembers.

But what he said after that was essential too: “The most advanced phones are called smartphones, so they say. And the problem is that they’re not so smart and they’re not so easy to use.” He spoke about the problems many users had found with these “smart” phones as well as typical mobile phones. And then he contrasted these complaints with the iPhone’s features.

The tactic that Jobs masterfully implied here is what Tony calls the virus of doubt. This means you remind people of some aspect of their life that’s annoying, tedious, or frustrating. You infect them with the virus of doubt, and then you slowly pave the way for a solution – maybe this annoying thing in life could be improved somehow? Finally, you put the cherry on top: you tell them how your product or service provides the solution.

In a way, it’s about storytelling. Of course, you might create a state-of-the-art product – but if your competitors are out there telling better stories than you, they’re going to come out as the winners. So focus, above all, on your product’s “why.” You need a strong answer to this question, and you need to argue your case effectively.

If you can’t identify a strong enough “why” for your product, it might not be such a great idea after all. Every truly great product idea consists of three components. The first is a clear “why.” The second is that it solves a problem that many people have in their lives. And the third component? Your product should be based on an idea you can’t seem to let go of. No matter how difficult the product may seem to produce, the idea to produce it shouldn’t leave you.

Here’s a simple way to think about it: the best ideas are like painkillers rather than vitamins. Vitamins are nice to have, but you can go your whole life without ever taking one and never really know the difference. Painkillers, on the other hand – well, you notice pretty quickly if you forget to take one. They eliminate a problem noticeably and immediately.

Before committing to a single idea, wait to see if it sticks with you. It might feel similar to the pain in your leg that won’t go away without a painkiller. And it will probably take a long time for you to come up with this idea. It took Tony ten years to go from thinking about a smart thermostat to actually creating Nest. Over time, certain ideas will slip from your mind, while others will stay put. This latter group is the one to focus on.

Hire a diverse team, and hire carefully.

Isabel Guenette began working at Nest when she was just 22 years old. Fresh out of college, she was one of the first employees to join Tony and his cofounder. They hired her to do important research on thermostats and find answers to the hundreds of questions to which they didn’t yet have answers. There was a ton that Tony didn’t know about thermostats. And neither did Isabel. But she was young, curious, and capable – so she approached the problem head-on, learned fast, and soon became a project manager and key player in the product’s development.

One of Isabel’s strengths was that she was young. While an older person may have been daunted by the amount of work required, Isabel was unphased – she just got on with things.

At some point in your company’s journey, you’re going to have to hire people. And one of the best things you can do when hiring is to ensure that your teams are multigenerational. Hire 70-year-olds who are rich with wisdom they can pass on. And hire 20-year-olds who aren’t afraid to buck the status quo and have endless reserves of passion. While young people might take awhile to train and teach, they’re an investment in the long-term success of your company.

And don’t ignore any part of the population when you’re trying to grow your team. Hire people with different backgrounds and identities. This is your chance to deepen your understanding of the world – and your customers.

But you still need an effective process for hiring. Too many of the common hiring practices today are just straight up bad.

To ensure you’re hiring the right people, you need to get the right people at your company talking to candidates. Say you’re trying to hire an app designer. Well, app designers create things that engineers need to implement. So, in that case, make sure you have an engineer on the interview board.

You should also have some ground rules in place, no matter what position people are applying for. Nest, for instance, had a strict “no assholes” policy – simple, but effective. It didn’t matter if someone was everything they were looking for on paper. If the candidate was arrogant, controlling, or dismissive, it was an immediate “no.”

It’s not always easy to figure out off the bat who’s an asshole and who isn’t. One way to test that, though, is by pushing your candidates during the interview. Ask them why they left their previous job. And if they mention a problem – like a bad manager – ask them what they did about it.

You can also find out whether someone is a good fit for your team by simulating a real-life work experience. Pick a problem you currently face in your workplace, and then get out a whiteboard and try to solve it together. This will help you see how your candidate thinks, what questions they ask, and how empathetic they seem. Remember, you’re not just hiring this person to see if they can do the job that’s required of them right now. You’re also hiring them to solve new problems, the ones you don’t see coming – tomorrow’s problems as well as today’s.

As CEO, push your employees to do their best and avoid coddling them.

So, you’ve made it. You’ve climbed to the top of the corporate mountain. You’re a CEO. You’re tasked with managing your entire company, liaising with your board, navigating a long list of professional relationships, and ensuring that your team continues to build great things. And at this point, you may be asking yourself, How the hell do I do this?

The bad news is that there’s no way to truly prepare yourself to be CEO other than to actually be one. Even if you’ve been in the C-suite before, sitting at the top is a completely different ball game. As CEO, the things you care about are the things that your company cares about. Your job is, quite simply, to care. About everything.

As the CEO, you should never accept mediocrity in any aspect of your company. If you do, mediocrity will soon become the standard. When Tony was at Nest, he read almost all the key customer support articles for each of Nest’s products. Another CEO might dismiss those articles as “just” support. But Tony recognized that people tend to be on the brink of rage when they consult these kinds of support articles. If reading them and following the instructions was a good experience, you could turn rage into delight.

So look at customer support articles with as critical an eye as you would your product’s engineering or design.

As a CEO, your job is to quest for perfection. That means pushing yourself and others – almost to the point of “too much.” Too many companies today are going in the exact opposite direction. They coddle their employees with endless perks – free gourmet meals every day, free haircuts, free laundry, free massages . . . . The list goes on.

By offering your employees an extreme amount of perks, you create the expectation that it’s their right to have them rather than something special that they get once in a while. It’s much better to subsidize perks rather than make them free. There’s a reason Apple doesn’t give their employees free products but offers nice discounts instead. When people pay for something, they value it.

You might have had good intentions by introducing perks to your employees at the start. But it becomes all too easy for people to abuse them. So, forget the massages. Use your funding to build the business, make better products, and solidify your business model so you can ensure that you’re able to keep employing people in the first place. Focus on the stuff that really matters – and, in the end, that’s building something great. Your company’s mission is the cake. The perks are just a light dusting of sugar on top.


One final takeaway from this is that:

Building a career, a product, or a business requires you to draw from a deep well of motivation and stick-to-itiveness. If you’re young and just starting out, the best thing you can do is find a job where you can learn everything possible about the thing you’re passionate about and throw yourself into your work. If you’re a bit more advanced and have, say, a management role, your key goal should be creating the conditions for your team to produce your desired outcome. And if you’re a CEO, your job is to care – to push your company to take risks, strive for excellence, and ensure that everyone knows that what they’re doing matters.

And here’s one more bit of actionable advice:

Write your press release before making your product.

Press releases are meant to capture people’s attention. To do that, you have to cut to the chase and highlight the features that make your product stand out. Write your press release when you first start developing your product. Then, when you’re almost finished – weeks, months, or years later – reread the press release you originally wrote. Does your product, in its current state, roughly align with that? If so, the product is probably ready to release now. No more waffling, waiting, and pushing deadlines back to see if other features can still be added!

About the author

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 Future Shape, where he mentors the next generation of startups that are changing the world.


Entrepreneurship, Management, Leadership, Business, Investing, Science, Technology, Design, History, Biography, Self Help

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