“You can only define failure when you fail and stop. If you fail and you continue, that's called learning.” —Tony Fadell
In the decade-plus that we’ve known Tony Fadell as an investor and friend, he has always been generous with his advice for startup founders. He would know—as the inventor of the iPod (and co-inventor of the iPhone and founder of Nest), Tony has lived through the loneliness of innovation and the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. In fact, it took him years of trial and error in Silicon Valley before enjoying what others saw as his overnight success.
From building world-changing products to managing teams, many of those career insights are now featured in his New York Times best-selling book, “Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making.”
We recently caught up with Tony in a virtual fireside chat just for founders and leaders at GGV portfolio companies. Here are some of our favorite pieces of advice from the conversation:
For Tony, true innovation stems from lifelong curiosity—not chasing trends. “If you're going to do something new, it's got to be new,” he says. “And it means that a lot of people aren’t going to know what it is.”
In Tony’s case, that meant investing in climate tech more than a decade ago when “it was crickets,” “nobody cared,” and it was “lonely being an investor, especially on things that aren’t trendy.” But as he points out, “it's called investment, right? It means investing your own time in something you really believe in, and [not getting] deterred from that.”
When it comes to hiring, Tony adopts the same approach: “I want to know, ‘What are you curious about? What do you want to learn?’ … That's how you should think about your career because that's what's going to drive you at the end of the day.”
According to Tony, “the most successful entrepreneurs aren't successful until they're in their mid- to late thirties. And that means it was all of that investment in that time, building up your knowledge and your expertise, building up those trust networks who will believe in you and bet on you.”
For innovators, it’s especially important to be able to ask for help. After all, “there are no experts if you're truly innovating … You need to pull all this expertise together to then go out and figure out what you're building.”
Although a coach can help with specific skills like running effective meetings or improving work-life balance, an operational mentor is essential for every startup CEO. Ideally, this is someone who not only understands human nature but who can also “help you with those operational details and separate the wheat from the chaff,” Tony says.
“You want to do everything as best as you possibly can, but you can get into analysis paralysis,” Tony adds. “Sometimes it could be a trusted board member, but a lot of times it's a mentor who is by your side, who believes in you (and vice versa), and doesn't have a real financial gain.” Cultivate relationships, and create win-win dynamics to find a mentor who is interested in your growth and success.
As you’re developing yourself, be sure to invest in your startup’s future leaders because “you want your best people to grow with you.” After all, you may lose nine months’ worth of momentum by the time you fully onboard an executive.
Beyond that, “if everyone sees that there's just always people coming in on the top, they're like, ‘Why am I here?’ So your job is not just your business growth, but it's your team growth—that institutional knowledge, that DNA [of] how the culture works is inside those people … Figure out who could be the ones who could level up with coaches.”
Whatever you do, invest in your people. “Because at the end of the day, I wouldn't be sitting here if people didn't give me a chance, right?” Tony adds. “People had to believe in me.”
Afraid to fail? Consider reframing your thoughts: “You're going to have pivots; you're going to have adjustments along the way,” Tony says. “And maybe that first venture or the second venture doesn't pan out, but that doesn't mean you should stop. You can only define failure when you fail and stop. If you fail and you continue, that's called learning.”