Tony Fadell’s Next Act? Taking on Silicon Valley—From Paris
Tony Fadell is at the Grove, a spectacularly beautiful country estate outside of London. The event is Founders Forum: the ultra exclusive invite-only tech conference. Prince William is in the house. The guest list is lousy with knights and lesser officers of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Marissa Mayer, the now ex-CEO of Yahoo, and Biz Stone, recently returned to Twitter, are mingling with the other hundred or so invitees. But this is really Fadell’s moment.
It’s almost exactly 10 years since the iPhone was released, and the media buzz is inescapable. The press is having trouble coming up with superlatives to describe the impact of a device that has sold more than a billion units. A new book, The One Device, is lighting up the intertubes with fresh gossip about “the secret history of the iPhone.” And Fadell—both the source and the subject of that gossip—is getting his due as one of the guys most responsible for turning Steve Jobs’ one-device-to-rule-them-all vision into reality.
The title of the afternoon session is “What to Build Next?” and Fadell is onstage with two other bona fide tech zillionaires—Niklas Zennström, the Skype guy; and Kevin Ryan, one of New York City’s most successful internet entrepreneurs—as well as a couple of other founder-investor types. Of the five people onstage, Fadell is the only one who helped build an object that every person in the audience has most likely used at one time or another. First Fadell helped build the iPod for Apple, then the iPhone, and then he ventured out on his own to build the Nest thermostat.
Fadell is the star of the show, and he knows it. His self-confidence is well earned but can come across as overweening—especially to those who suddenly find themselves in his shadow. “Any VC who tells you that you have to move to Silicon Valley,” Fadell says at one point, gesticulating wildly, “is being very lazy.” Two of the other people onstage are, in fact, from Silicon Valley venture capital firms, and their collars seem to squeeze a bit tighter. Fadell, in comparison, is supremely comfortable: relaxed and expansive in a pair of bright red sneakers—no socks—and a polo shirt. The moderator, wrapping things up, calls for a lightning round: a rapid-fire series of questions—with only one-word answers allowed.
What’s the biggest problem facing the world right now?
“Climate,” Fadell says. Then he adds, “We’regoingtohavetogonuclear …” before being hushed by the moderator for busting the one-word rule.
What’s the next big thing in tech?
“Computational synthetic biology,” Fadell says, bending the rules a second time.
What is the one word that people who know you would use to describe you?
With that, the panel is over, and Fadell is mobbed as he tries to leave the Grove’s 18th-century manor. People want autographs, selfies, a word or two—but the most persistent want money and advice. Like many of his contemporaries, Fadell makes personal investments as an angel, through a firm called Future Shape, with one important difference: He says he has a venture-size pool of money—a portfolio of Future Shape investments worth more than half a billion dollars. Looking to make his escape, Fadell slips into the men’s room. One persistent supplicant follows and, while Fadell is standing at the urinal, penis in hand, proceeds to make his pitch. It’s a startup with a new design for a robotic arm. Fadell listens for less than a minute and, shaking off, says: “A new robot arm? China is going to copy that in a second! What then? What’s your value proposition?”
Faster, better, cheaper … blah blah blah.
“Not good enough!” Fadell thinks, before offering some bland words of encouragement and dashing off to slip into the back seat of a black Mercedes-Benz S-class emblazoned with the AMG performance badge. As we start to speed toward central London to catch the afternoon Eurostar to Paris, he entertains the chauffeur (and me) with the penis-pitch story. “I did like his persistence, though,” Fadell says, “I respect that.”
Turning philosophical, Fadell puts on his shades against the bright sun streaming through the backseat sunroof. “It’s kind of like being a film producer,” he says, reflecting on his new role, post-Nest, as an investor. People pitch him, and if he likes their idea, it’s go time.
As if on cue, Fadell is forced to cut his reverie short to take a call from a young journalist doing a story on “the new culture of celebrity in tech.”
Did you ever think that tech would make you into a celebrity?
“Absolutely not!” Fadell says. “The tech business in the ’80s was Revenge of the Nerds. It was geeks. We were looked down upon, trodden upon …” Fadell is working himself into his trademark lather. “ ‘Who are these crazy guys with pocket protectors and broken glasses?’ ” he asks rhetorically. “So you never thought that you were going to become a rock star,” Fadell says, winding down, before quickly amending the thought. “Not that I am,” he says, “but that’s what some people think.”
I don’t think Fadell is a rock star, but I’m quickly realizing that he is not your run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley billionaire making an early retirement out of an investing hobby either. For starters, he doesn’t even live in the Valley anymore. He has moved to Paris. Permanently. And the more I learn about him, the more I begin to suspect that Silicon Valley’s favorite son secretly hates the Valley. To hear Fadell tell it, he certainly has reason to.
*****Rewind to the early ’90s....MUCH MORE