Pondering the Pages: 'Build - An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making'

Introduction to Build

“Build - An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making” is one of those books that seems more like a tool than a book. There are so many important messages laid out in clear, well-written prose and supported by purposeful stories and insights. Some books are books because they can be. The author provides a few useful stories or ideas and the rest is fluff. This is not one of those books. This is a book because it needed to be. It is a book that serves as a guide for building great products. It will resonate with anyone that wants to make something worthwhile. It addresses all readers with this desire from individual contributors to CEO’s. But while this book provides many useful insights from someone that has experienced the highs and lows of building amazing things, it is up to the reader to apply it to their own lives and in their industry. Below I have added thoughts and passages that stuck out to me in each section of the book.

The book is written by Tony Fadell who helped make several revolutionary technological products, most notably Apple’s first iPod and iPhone. Tony worked at several companies throughout his career including founding a handful of startups of his own. He currently works as founder and consultant at Future Shape, a global advisory and investment firm. The book is divided into 6 parts: I. Build Yourself, II. Build Your Career, III. Build Your Project, IV. Build Your Business, V. Build Your Team, and VI. Be CEO.

Key Takeaways

I. Build Yourself

This first section highlights the fact that you can’t contribute to something great until you have solid foundations in yourself. Throughout the section, Tony focuses on several ideas and two of those are chasing what you want and failing often. You have to know where you want to go and try and fail as much as possible to get there. Fail because failure means learning and learning means growth.

Here he highlights the importance of direction, “The critical thing is to have a goal. To strive for something big and hard and important to you. Then every step you take toward that goal, even if it is a stumble, moves you forward." And here he highlights the importance of failing by doing in order to build yourself, “No matter how much you learn in school, you still need to get the equivalent of a PhD in navigating the rest of the world and building something meaningful. You have to try and fail and learn by doing."

"The only failure in your twenties is inaction. The rest is trial and error."

Other tips for how to Build Yourself include:

  • If you want to prove yourself, you have to put in the time. Stay late. Come in early. Be relentless and work hard.
  • Read everything you can about your industry. You may not be the smartest or the brightest but you can be the most knowledgable.
  • Don’t only look down. Look up sometimes. Look around sometimes. Get a more full understanding of the product and the business by talking to people in other departments and with other perspectives.
  • “You always have something to offer if you’re curious and engaged."
  • “The only thing that can make a job truly amazing or a complete waste of time is the people."

II. Build Your Career

This section focuses on management, making decisions, and knowing when to quit. It also talks about dealing with people as that is the main responsibility of management. Sure it is managing the creation of a product but in creating that product it is really all about managing people. And Tony states several key points at the beginning of the first chapter in this section:

  • You do not have to be a manager to be successful.
  • Remember, once you become a manager, you’ll stop doing the thing that made you successful in the first place.
  • Becoming a manager is a discipline.
  • Being exacting and expecting great work is not micromanagement.
  • Honesty is more important than style.
  • Don’t worry that your team will outshine you. That is what you want.

And when it comes to quitting, Tony has two reasons for knowing when it is time to quit.

  1. You’re no longer passionate about the mission. You are only doing it for the money.
  2. You’ve tried everything but still your project is going nowhere or you’re manager is impossible or the company is falling apart.

And don’t waste your time by being one of those people who know in their gut it is time to quit but take months or years talking themselves out of it. Only quit when you are no longer passionate about the mission or you can clearly see the mission won’t get accomplished due to impassable roadblocks like mentioned in point 2. Never quit because it is too tough. And make sure to make the transition for the company as smooth as possible whether it be the typical two weeks or in some cases with higher managerial roles, a much longer transition over the course of several months.

III. Build Your Project

Tony discusses how your product isn’t just a product. It is the whole user experience in all of its phases. Your product is from the first exposure to the customer in whatever medium that is to your customer’s satisfaction and beyond. And it must answer the ‘why’ that the customer asks: why should I care, why should I buy it, why should I use it, why should I keep using it, why should I buy the next version?

Once you’ve answered those questions, it is important to appeal to the customer through storytelling. Storytelling works because it appeals to people’s rational and emotional sides, it takes compilcated concepts and makes them simple, and it reminds people of the problem thats being solved. Storytelling focuses on the why for the customer. “Your product’s story is the design, its features, images and videos, quotes from customers, tips from reviewers, conversations with support agents. It’s the sum of what people see and feel about this thing you’ve created."

IV. Build Your Business

When you are building your business it is important to remember the three elements of a 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. You can’t stop thinking about it.

When you are building your business, you need seed crystals and you need people who are there to accomplish the mission. “Seed crystals are people who are so good and so well loved that they can almost single-handedly build large parts of your org." You also need a mentor who wants to help you and who has done it before. And you need to find personal balance along the way. Eat well, exercise, sleep, and give your mind a break at times. Strike a personal work life balance that works for you. “But there’s a world of difference between racking your brain, ruminating all night about a work crisis, versus letting yourself think about work in an unstructured, creative way."

Tony also talks about the need for a system. Each person’s system for organation and productivity and ideas can be different. But there needs to be a system. He argues that human beings cannot survive on stress and Diet Coke alone.

“Every Sunday evening, I would go through my notes, reassess and reprioritize all my tasks, rifle through the good ideas, then update those papers on a computer and print out a new version for the week. Continually repriortizing allowed me to zoom out and see what could be combined or eliminated. It let me spot moments when we were trying to do too much."

V. Build Your Team

This section highlights the importance of the people in the product. Without the people, there is no product and with the wrong people the product and mission will surely fail. The people are the most important. Invest in the people and get people with different perspectives all driven towards accomplishing the mission. What you’re building never matters as much as who you’re building it with.

“the key to our success – was the human beings we hired, the culture we created, the way they thought and organized and worked together. The team was everything."

Tony also mentions that sometimes life is the process of elimination. Sometimes being fired or quitting is the best thing for you because it can lead to more opportunity. We are defined by where we are but also by where we are not.


Being CEO is not easy. You have to care. You have to want to help people both those in your company that you need to take care of and the customer. You must push people to be their best. You must keep careful watch over your Ego. It probably isn’t possible to get rid of your Ego, but get rid of as much of it as you can. You must create a culture of hard work, trust, and dedication rather than one of laziness, free massages, and pop tarts. You must earn respect and not care about being liked. You must hold people accountable. Know how to delegate. Take ownership of mistakes. Have a vision. Listen. And so much more. You are in charge of the growth of the company and you want to leave it better than you found it. And sometimes you won’t know if you did a good job until ten years later.