“Build” (Book Review)

6 min readMay 11, 2024


Image Credit: Build Collective

Tony Fadell is probably one of the most successful and well known product people alive. Fadell led the teams that built the iPod, the iPhone and was the CEO of Nest, the popular thermostat which was later on acquired by Google.

Image Credit: Arm

In “Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making” Fadell reflects on his career, shining an honest light on both successes and failures and offering readers with valuable insights to apply to their career choices and product decisions. “Build” is the kind of the book that you can read in one go or use as a reference at different points in your career or product journey. The book made me reflect on my own career thus far as well as on my management style, and these are my main takeaways:

Data vs Opinion

Fadell makes the distinction between data-driven and opinion-driven decisions. With data-driven decisions you can acquire, analyse and debate facts and numbers that will allow you to be fairly confident in your choices. These decisions tend to be relatively easy to make, explain and defend. Compare this to opinion-driven decisions where you’ve got to follow your gut and vision for what you want to do, without the benefit of sufficient data to guide you or back you up.

If you don’t have enough data to make a decision, you’ll need insights to inform your opinion. Insights can be key learnings about the customer, the market or your product space — something substantial that gives you an intuitive feeling for what you should do.

Fadell’s point about the use of insights to underpin our opinion-driven decisions made me think about starting with (loosely-held) assumptions, especially when you’re working on the first iteration of your product. You identify the insights you need to see to prove these assumptions, and thus learning whether you’ve made the right decision or not.


“Creating a believable narrative that everyone can latch on to is critical to moving forward and making hard choices. It’s all that marketing that comes down to. It’s the heart of sales.” Fadell stresses that every good product is backed up by a compelling story. The story should explain the “why” of your product, the core customer problem the product is trying to solve (and how you can solve a problem without your product). A good product story has three elements:

  • It appeals to people’s rational and emotional sides
  • It takes complicated concepts and makes them simple
  • It reminds people of the problem that’s being solve — it focuses on the “why”

Looking at the hardware products that Fadell has been responsible for, he makes the point that a product story isn’t just about words: “your product’s story is its design, its features, images and videos, quotes from customers, conversations with support agents. It’s the sum of what people see and feel about this thing that you’ve created.”

Whether you’re is using analogies or benefit statements to tell a product story, Fadell urges us to not treat product marketing as an afterthought. Don’t just build a product, hand it over to the marketing team and expect them to create a story for it. Instead, product makers should start with the story, develop this well before your product is a living thing.

Evolution vs Disruption vs Execution

Evolution: A small, incremental step to make something better.

Disruption: A fork on the evolutionary tree — something fundamentally new that changes the status quo, usually by taking a novel or revolutionary approach to an old problem.

Execution: Actually doing what you’ve promised to do and doing it well.

Fadell talks about how the first iteration of your product should be disruptive, not evolutionary. If the first version of the product is a great success, the second edition of your product is typically an evolution of the first version. When building the first version of your product you’ll need to make many opinion-driven decisions, because you don’t yet have solid data or evidence to base your decisions on. For the second iteration you can use data and insights obtained from people using V1.

Just like Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman, Fadell stresses the importance of execution. Whether your product is disruptive or evolutionary, you need to execute your product well. Even if you keep the scope of your first product version small, you need to execute your product idea (and its quality) well.

Image Credit: Marc Abraham

“The best ideas are painkillers, not vitamins” explains Fadell. Vitamins are good for you, but not essential. You might forget to take your vitamin without even realising. In contrast, you’ll realise real quick if you forget to take a painkiller. Great ideas start with a strong “why”, and Fadell lists three common elements of every great idea:

  1. It solves for “why.” Long before you figure out what a product will do, you need to understand why people will want it. The “why” drives the “what.”
  2. It solves a problem that a lot of people have in their daily lives.
  3. It follows you around. Even after you research and learn about it and try it out and realise how hard it’ll be to get it right, you can’t stop thinking about it.

Even if you feel that you’re onto something, Fadell encourages us to commit time researching and making some rough prototyoes, articulating your story of “why.”

Coaches / Mentors

We tend to using the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ interchangeably, but Fadell offers a useful distinction:

“Coaches are there to help with the business. It’s all about the work: this company, this job, this moment in time.”

Mentors, Fadell explains, are more personal. They don’t just help with people’s jobs, they help with their lives, their families. “

I think about coaches and how they can help teams or individuals achieve specific — short and long term — business goals. Good coaches will use techniques like Socratic Questioning to help people work through challenges or opportunities in order to realise a business outcome.

The best is a combination of a mentor and a coach — someone who understands both worlds and can help people see the bigger picture about what the business may need as well as what they need personally.

The point of PMs

Just in a time where there’s lot of discussion about the role and value of Product Managers, it was good to read Fadell’s perspective on the role and value of PMs. His main belief is that PMs act as the voice of the customer; they keep every team in check to make they sure they don’t lose sight of creating happy customers. Building on the idea of the PM as the voice of the customer, Fadell shares this list of the key things that a PM will do:

  • Spec out what the product should do and the roadmap for where it will go over time
  • Determine and maintain the messaging metric
  • Work with engineering to get the product built according to spec
  • Work with design to make it intuitive and attractive to the target customer
  • Work with marketing to help them understand the technical nuances in order to develop effective creative to communicate the messaging
  • Present the product to management and get feedback from the execs
  • Work with sales and finance to make sure this product has a market and can eventually make money
  • Work with customer support to write necessary instructions, help manage problems, and take in customer requests and complaints
  • Work with PR to address public perceptions, write the mock press release, and often act as a spokesperson

Fadell clearly shares the perspective on the PM role in a vain similar to companies like Airbnb, aiming to make the PM role more business related. PMs should be very close to product marketing and commercial viability, compared to companies where PMs are still being treated as product janitors or backlog managers. The hardest part of being a PM, Fadell explains, is to figure out what should be built and why. He also acknowledges that PMs who carry out all their customer, product and business responsibilities really well are hard to find, but stresses that “”they can and will help your business go exactly where it needs to go.”

Main learning point: “Build” is a book that every self respecting product maker should read. Plain and simple. Fadell’s book made me reflect on my product career, decision-making and provided me valuable insights on improvements I can make. Whether you’re building your first product or are season product maker, I have no doubt that you’ll get some valuable reflections out of “Build.”




Product person, author of "My Product Management Toolkit" and “Managing Product = Managing Tension” — see https://bit.ly/3gH2dOD.