Painkillers Not Vitamins

person holding silver blister pack

I’m always on the lookout for alternative ways to think about innovation and building things. For one, thinking about things differently is a good practice to ensure you’re continuously evolving and improving. Secondly, I think it’s good to challenge notions and conventions.

That said though, a core theme of innovation and product management that comes up repeatedly is that of solving pain. Something that causes friction in the lives of people is a great opportunity for innovation.

Tony Fadell, one of the creators of the iPod and iPhone was on Lex Fridman’s podcast this week talking about this very thing.

In their conversation, Tony talks about two things he’s passionate about – music and engineering. When he was young, he would listen to music in his room on a clock radio. His parents would get on to him for staying up too late playing music. So he hacked the clock radio and wired a pair of headphones to it so they couldn’t hear the music – problem solved!

Later he would go on to talk about the annoyance of carrying CD’s around and how he had the chance to work at Apple with Steve Jobs and others. It was there he came up with the design and engineering plan to create the first iPod. As he’s telling the story, a couple of things stood out to me.

One, he describes how great problems “chase you”. There always there but maybe hard to see. I’ve written before about user’s not always knowing what they want and so they don’t necessarily ask you to build or make something. Tony describes this as “habitualizing pain”. Everyone has just excepted it but that doesn’t mean there’s still not opportunity there. A recent example is autonomous vehicles. Most people, most of the time, don’t particularly enjoy driving cars, especially in heavy traffic. But we all accept it and this is better than riding a bike. Self-driving cars though will solve this excepted problem [eventually].

The other great point he made was that great innovation is like a pain killer. Some products or innovations are like vitamins – they may help a little or maybe not and it’s kind of hard to tell. But “pain killer” innovations have an immediate and obvious use! [side note, but ironically this advice holds in the world of innovation but isn’t true in reality – get vitamins!].

One last thing he mentioned that was a good reinforcement. He described how he designed and put together the first iPod but that was only half of the equation. They needed a way to get music on the device and they had to collab with another team that create iTunes. Teamwork of great, dedicated people is almost always part of a success story!

One thought on “Painkillers Not Vitamins

  1. I’ll be the first in line to purchase a self driving car once they become a little more reliable. Driving is a huge pain point for me.

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