I’ve been reading Build by Tony Fadell, the guy who led the original iPhone team at Apple and went on to found Nest. This is a book I was really excited to read. I have two bookshelves on product development and I think it is critical to think about book development through a similar lens.
What’s interesting is thatI found the book frustrating, but not because it wasn’t good. I was frustrated because I don’t think the book reached its full potential. I fear recommending it because many readers will just think it was OK. Not true! The trouble is that all the pieces don’t fit together as well as they could. The book needs a stronger throughline.
Like my first throughline write-up of The Passion Economy, I am going to look at the elements that make up a book’s throughline. That arc starts on the cover with the title and subtitle. From there, the book description serves as the verbal book trailer. the table of contents reveals clues about the chapters and organizations of the book. The final segment of the throughline is the opening material from the book itself—the introduction and the first few chapters.
Build feels like another good case study, a book we can x-ray to see its structure and examine how we might improve it.
Title and Subtitle
Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making
I love the word “Build”. I think it is perfect for this book. All great business books are about change and they signal it from the front cover. “Build” shows we are going to learning about the steps and processes to create new things.
The subtitle is also exactly what I would expect from a book from Fadell. The reader is promised a “Guide to Making Things Worth Making.”
The Book Description
“Everyone deserves a mentor.
For every career crisis, every fork in the road, you need someone to talk to. Someone who’s been there before, who knows exactly how wobbly and conflicted you feel, who can give it to you straight.
Here’s how to think about choosing a job.
Here’s how to be a better manager.
Here’s how to approach design.
Here’s how to start a company.
Here’s how to ruin it.
Tony Fadell learned all of these lessons the hard way. He spent the first ten years of his career in Silicon Valley failing spectacularly, and the next twenty building some of the most impactful devices in history: the iPod, the iPhone, and Nest Learning Thermostat. He has enough stories and advice about leadership, design, startups, mentorship, decision-making, devastating screw-ups, and unbelievable success to fill an encyclopedia.
So that’s what this book is: an advice encyclopedia.
A mentor in a box.
But Tony doesn’t follow the standard Silicon Valley credo that in order to build something amazing, you have to reinvent everything, throw out the old, and start from scratch. His advice is unorthodox because it’s old school. Because it acknowledges that products evolve from humans, and human nature doesn’t change.
You don’t need to reinvent how you lead and manage—just what you make.
And Tony’s ready to help everyone make things worth making.”
Any tension for you reading that book description?
The description starts with talking about mentorship, then career crisis, and then, a wide ranging list of problems someone in business might have. The thread of building things is getting a little lost. Next, we find out more about Tony that create credibility with another laundry list of things he can mentor on.
Rather than the subtitle’s promise of a guide for making things, we are now promised an advice encyclopedia.
What’s interesting is that the second half of the description goes back to the building and making imagery.
It’s almost like two different descriptions were fused together. As a reader, I am not sure exactly what book I am going to get.
Table of Contents
- Part I : Build Yourself
- Chapter 1.1 Adulthood
- Chapter 1.2 Get a Job
- Chapter 1.3 Heroes
- Chapter 1.4 Don’t Only Look Down
- Part II: Build Your Career
- Chapter 2.1 Just Managing
- Chapter 2.2 Data Versus Opinion
- Chapter 2.3 Assholes
- Chapter 2.4 I Quit
- Part III: Build Your Product
- Chapter 3.1 Make the Intangible Tangible
- Chapter 3.2 Why Storytelling
- Chapter 3.3 Evolution Versus Disruption Versus Execution
- Chapter 3.4 First First Adventure—And Your Second
- Chapter 3.5 Heartbeats and Handcuffs
- Chapter 3.6 Three Generations
- Part IV: Build Your Business
- Chapter 4.1 How to Spot a Great Idea
- Chapter 4.2 Are You Ready?
- Chapter 4.3 Marrying For Money
- Chapter 4.4 You Can Have Only One Customer
- Chapter 4.5 Killing Yourself for Work
- Chapter 4.6 Crisis
- Part V: Build Your Team
- Chapter 5.1 Hiring
- Chapter 5.2 Breakpoints
- Chapter 5.3 Design for Everyone
- Chapter 5.4 A Method to the Marketing
- Chapter 5.5 The Point of PMs
- Chapter 5.6 Death of a Sales Culture
- Chapter 5.7 Lawyer Up
- Part VI: Be CEO
- Chapter 6.1 Becoming CEO
- Chapter 6.2 The Board
- Chapter 6.3 Buying and Being Bought
- Chapter 6.4 Fuck Massages
- Chapter 6.5 Unbecoming CEO
- Conclusion: Beyond Yourself
By the end of reading through the Table of Contents, I think we know which of the two books Build will be. This is an encyclopedia with six parts and 34 chapters. Or is it six chapters? Or is it six parts with more chapters? The naming of the book’s parts creates some confusion for the reader, but the organization itself conveys precision and details.
From my point of view, Part III is the only section of the book that is about making things. The other parts might be framed as building something like yourself or a team. Again this reinforces the promise of an advice encyclopedia, not a guide about making things.
As for the chapter names, some are very clear. Others are cryptic. Encyclopedias need clear headings so the reader can help what they are looking for.
The Book’s Opening
The very first line of the book is:
“Many of my experienced, trusted mentors have died.”
Fadell goes on to talk about the importance of mentors in his life, and how in recent years, he is now often asked to give advice. This book is his collection of all those answers. He says:
“Most business books have one basic thesis that they spend three hundred pages expanding on. If you’re looking for a range of good advice on various topics, you might need forty books, skimming endlessly to find the occasional nugget of useful information. So for this book, I just collected the nuggets. Each chapter has advice and stories informed by the jobs, mentors, coaches, managers, and peers I’ve had and the countless mistakes I’ve made.”
By the end of the introduction, we certainly now know that this book is going to cover a wide range of topics and advice encyclopedia is the better description.
The opening chapters are about moving into adulthood, getting a first job and finding great people. These are all great topics for an advice encyclopedia.
Potential Fixes to The Product Throughline
The primary tension is between the promise of the subtitle and actual contents of the book.
You are not going to change the whole book to match the subtitle, but you could change the subtitle to match the book with something like:
Build: A Founder’s Advice To The Next Generation
Or something else like that. Use a subtitle with a big vision to make room for all the topics the author wants to talk about.
The other revision would be to the labeling of the parts and chapters. By its own description, the book is an advice encyclopedia. Lean into that and build a stronger throughline by creating clear, plain English chapter titles that tell the reader exactly what they will learn.
These both might seem like small changes that won’t make much difference. The problem is that these are key components of the book and they create confusion and friction for the reader right now.
Right now, lots of people are buying the book because it’s written by Tony Fadell. When we get through the readers who know Fadell, the next group are going to care about the promise on the cover and what value they are going to get from reading the book.