Tony Fadell on Leaving Silicon Valley to Help Build a Healthier Society, Online and Off
In both his work and his life, Tony Fadell constantly imagines Version 2.0 (if not 3.0, or 4.0 and beyond). On a mission to shape the future through forward-thinking design, engineering, invention, and investing, he is probably most widely recognized for both founding the smart-home products company Nest and for his instrumental involvement in developing the iPod. Through his newest venture, the appropriately coined advisory firm Future Shape, Fadell lends his expertise to promising entrepreneurs and companies, funding and advising a range of environmentally minded startups, such as the biologically produced leather-maker Modern Meadow, semiconductor company Phononic, and micro-LED developer Rohinni.
After starting his career at General Magic, an early spin-off of Apple, Fadell moved to the electronics behemoth Philips and then, eventually, to Apple, where he started in 2001 and was, from 2006 to 2008, on the executive team that created the iPhone. In 2010, he founded Nest, which Google acquired less than three years later for $3.2 billion. Having played a crucial role in helping many of the most important technological Silicon Valley innovations of the 2000s come to fruition, Fadell has since decamped for Paris, where he now runs Future Shape. Recently, he spent an entire year in Bali with his family.
Rebooting and welcoming change has been a constant thread throughout Fadell’s career, and also in his personal life. While he’s known for his extreme work ethic—early in his career, he famously had a bed in his office—Fadell recognizes the need to take time off in order to explore, and to create space for inner growth outside of the workplace. On this episode, Fadell and Andrew Zuckerman discuss his youth in Detroit; the perils of screen addiction; the external pressures of a career-oriented culture; and paving the way for a healthier society, online and off.
Fadell discusses a recent year spent living in and working out of Bali, where he moved with his family (his children attended the Green School there).
Fadell looks back on his upbringing in Michigan, where he learned engineering and craft from his grandfather, aesthetics from his mother, and entrepreneurialism from his father. His appreciation for music is also rooted in this time.
Fadell remembers his path to Silicon Valley, where with persistence he landed a job at the startup General Magic, before a stint at Philips and, after that, an impressive eight-year run at Apple, where he developed the iPod and was part of the team that created the iPhone.
Fadell talks about how, after leaving Apple and taking time off from work, he founded and launched the smart-home products company Nest, which was later sold to Google.
Fadell gets into some of his current projects with his Paris-based firm, Future Shape, and explains his approach as an investor in—and advisor to—cutting-edge startups. He also brings up many of the ills he sees right now in Silicon Valley.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Tony Fadell is the inventor of the iPod, co-inventor of the iPhone, and founder and former CEO of Nest Labs. He’s currently the principal at Future Shape, an investment and advisory firm that coaches deep-tech startups. Throughout his career, Fadell has authored more than 300 patents and shifted the way we interact with technology.
Welcome, Tony. It’s great to have you back in New York.
TONY FADELL: Thank you, sir.
AZ: Thanks for making time for us. So, I guess, I saw you last on the other side of the world, in Bali, where you’ve been living for the past year.
AZ: Why Bali?
TF: Well, Bali… Bali was just a crazy lark, which was: I had heard of a school, ten years ago, eleven years ago now. It was called the Green School, and I saw the presentation—I was there in the audience at TED when it was given, and I was like, “Well, that seems really intriguing!” But my kids were 1 and 2 at the time, something like that, and so it was always in the back of my mind. I got introduced to the founder of the school. He gave me his card, and it was on bamboo—was a bamboo card. [Editor’s note: The TED Talk Fadell mentions was nine years ago, in 2010.]
AZ: John Hardy.
TF: John Hardy. And I was like, wow! And so I always kept that bamboo card on my desk. And then, when I did my TED talk, four or five years back, his daughter [Elora] was on at the same time. She came on [stage] right after me or something like that. So we rekindled. I remet, I guess you could say, John and then his daughter, and that got the wheels turning, crazy turning. And so, I was like, “Oh yeah, this might be the right time.”
So I go back to Paris, because we’re living in Paris then, and then I start meeting people and start telling them about Green School. Or there was a person I met, and he’s like “I’m going to Bali” and I’m like “you’re going to Green School?” and he’s like “Exactly!” In a process of six weeks, literally four or five different families that I knew, or I knew of, or friends knew, had either been at the school or were going to the school. And I was just like, It’s a sign. And so that’s how it happened. Literally [I had] never [been] to Bali once in my life.
AZ: That was the first time you landed, when you moved there?
TF: Exactly. I was supposed to go, and I had an accident, an injury, and I couldn’t go, so my wife went for basically seventy-two hours. She came back and said, “We’re going.” I said, “Okay, we’re going.” It was that quick.
AZ: What’d you find in the area? Did it inform the way you were thinking about the world? What did you experience when you were there?
TF: A whole different way of life. In almost every which way it was different. It was 180 degrees different from Silicon Valley, from Paris. And it was very refreshing. When you drive around, there’s not big ads anywhere. You’re lucky if you can find a movie theater. You’re lucky if you can find any kind of shopping as we would know it in a world-class city. And so, the way I compare life in Bali to life in, let’s say, Paris or New York is that when you’re living in a city like New York, everybody’s shouting at you. All these brands are shouting at you: “Pick me!” “Come to this theater!” “Come to this show!”—art show or what have you, this concert. So the whole world is shouting at you and you just have to say no, no, no. When you’re in Bali, it’s the complete opposite. It’s very passive. You have to figure out what you want to do. Not everything is yelling at you, shouting, saying, “Pick me.” You have to literally go and figure out what you wanna do. And try to look inward. You have to figure out how to light up things inside of yourself to figure out what you want to do. That’s been really, really interesting. Because you’re not just, you’re not just following along with the masses. Which is great.
AZ: And your experience of time shifted while you were there?
TF: Right, I’m a big watch collector. I love watches. I love the mechanical nature of it. But when you’re there, you say, okay, you don’t need one—there’s Bali time. And everybody shows up around a time, but not at a time. It’s nice.
AZ: It’s also known for beauty and a certain community interested in the metaphysical and the healing arts. What of that did you engage in?
TF: I would say in the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours you feel it. You just look around and you go, “Oh, my god, look at all of this beauty, this religion, this community.” You just kind of go, “Whoa, this is cool.” And you’re like, I wanna know more. So you start reading books, or you start learning more about Bali and the cultures, and you learn about how the families live, how multiple families live together, and you start going, “Wait a second, there’s something really cool there.”
One really interesting data point for me was that they have four to four and a half million vehicles on this island, but there’s less than a hundred traffic lights on the island. Like, everything ebbs and flows and it moves like a bloodstream. There’s no stoplights. There’s none of this kind of order. But yet there is an order to everything, and people say, ”Oh, why don’t you go in front of me?” People aren’t honking; there’s not all of this kind of stuff.
There’s something different about the mindset there that allows that kind of controlled chaos, in a way, to happen, and it works. And so you start going, “I need to know more about this.” Because it’s about the mindset of how they grow up. And how they work together to make their community as opposed to relying on the government to make it. Because each of them are kind of like these mini governments all around the … it’s a compound. So a compound has, like, a few families in it, and that has about forty-five people in a compound. And those compounds then come together and they become a banjar, and a banjar could be twenty compounds together, and that’s like a mini city. And each of them have their different sets of community services that happen and each person has a different role to play. But they all have to work together. It’s not like the government comes in and does everything for them.
TF: They work together, and because of that—and they live multigenerational[ly] in one house, in a banjar—there’s a real sense of community. And when things go wrong everyone just laughs there. They go, “Ha, that’s just life, that’s how it is.” I guess we didn’t please the gods today, so we’ll just do a better job tomorrow.” There’s not a lot of angst and anger and things like that. So when you’re around that kind of energy—very different than a first-world city where everybody’s trying to beat each other out.
AZ: Especially Paris.
TF: Paris or New York or what have you. It’s a whole different energy.
AZ: How into sound baths, yoga, this sort of wellness stuff did you get into?
TF: Well, for me, I was, I’ve always been into yoga, so it was great to have that. But I went right into sound healing for the first time. And I’ve always been about sound in terms of music and those things—it really gets into my inner core and drives me. But when I experienced sound healing for the first time I was like, “Oh, my god. This is a set, this is a whole different area of my life that I need to have.” And plunging deep into it. Literally, very,very deep. [Doing] one-on-one sessions, doing multi-hour sessions—it was transformative in terms of how I felt, how I looked at the world, how the world felt to me. I’m still in the journey. It’s still very early days. Lots to learn.
AZ: You’re really passionate about change. It’s one of the things I think so much about you, and transformation and constantly sort of reinventing. Sometimes we need to change physical locations to do that. So I would love to hear a bit about that from you, how possibly the spaces we’re in can hold us back from the growth we’re trying to experience.
TF: Hmm, change, especially locations. So, I went to twelve schools in fifteen years. So we were changing locations every two to three years when we were growing up. And through that you can either, I looked at it as—it was very gut-wrenching, because you’re leaving friends and you’re the new kid all the time. So there was a lot of that going on. So not always positive.
But then, on the flip side, you got to observe all the time different people and different ways of living. And it was intriguing because what I learned through that, and then subsequent years, was human nature is the same everywhere. It’s definitely the same everywhere. There might be different ways it comes out, but in the end of the day everyone has basically the same needs, the same ways that they interact. And so that was really helpful in my early career, because we would have people from the East Coast working with people from the West Coast, and they’re like, “This New Yorker guy he’s so, like, aggro,” and I’m like, “No, no, no that’s just how they talk.” Because I grew up on Long Island and around here, so I was like, “No, no, no, that’s just them—don’t worry about that” or, you know, Texans or whatever. Different places where I was. So, that was really helpful in my career. But, as I was in Silicon Valley for so long, it was great to get outside and gain so much perspective. Because when you’re in a bubble like that, you start to think the whole world is like that.
You narrow your focus, and you’re like, “Oh, there’s only so many problems, there’s so many ways of being,” and you have this defined palette. When you get outside of that and you start to look around again, and not be the person you were in Silicon Valley, but you’re open to the new community you’re living in, then you’re asking tons of questions. Why do you live that way? In the States, we have this mentality, at least for me growing up, was: the U.S. was everything. Everybody from other countries wanted to come to the U.S. because it did everything the best. And you go to other places and you go, “Wait a second, they do some things really, really smart. Very creative, very different.” And you’re like, “No, no, no, not everything in the U.S. is perfect. The U.S. is great, but not everything is perfect, and no, there’s a lot of improvements can be done there.” But you have to gain that perspective. You have to get outside and see how other people live.
So now we’ve made it a point of going to Bali. So I was like, “I’ve never been, but let’s go. What the hell, it just seems like the right thing to do.” Going and living in Paris, we experienced it for a few weeks, and we said, “Let’s just live there,” so it’s always been [like] you get a feeling and you say, “Okay, just roll with it.” That has been liberating, in many ways. And now it feels like that’s the way we want to live our lives: Be open to lots of opportunities to help you gain much wider perspective to then help you see new things that you can become really curious about. And that happened to me in Bali. Curious on so many levels, on so many things, and now I’ve got my passions on some really new projects that have just taken me—that I would have never thought I would have wanted to do.
AZ: Yeah, which I want to get into in a minute.
AZ: But first I want to slide back to Detroit. You were born in ’69.
AZ: You were basically a child of the seventies. You moved around a lot. What kind of family did you grow up in? I mean, you and your brother are highly creative people. Where did that come from?
TF: Well, that’s a great question. Our family was, you know, middle-class, upper middle-class, but we were always living in areas that were higher-class, I guess you’d say. Wherever we lived we lived a little bit beyond our means. So we were always kind of the lesser kids out of all of it. Which was great. Which was great, because you got to see two different ways of being.
I think, creatively, my grandfather took me under his wing—and my brother as well—took me under his wing and said, “We’re gonna go and fix all these things.” He was an educator, he was a tinkerer, a handyman. His father taught him how to work with his hands, so we would fix everything—fix lawnmowers, we would build soapbox derby racers. Just every weekend, even after school, we were always in the shop doing something. Which was great. Wonderful. And we were doing it from the age of 3, 4, right? Doing dangerous things that I’m so glad we did. At the same time, then I had my mom, who cared about the aesthetics of everything. She was—she is—she’s very houseproud. She loves the way everything looks, and it’s gotta be just right and what have you. So when the worlds of my grandfather collided with my mom, right, obviously there’s some tension there because its—
AZ: Yeah, inherently.
TF: Right. But she had this aesthetic—color and it’s gotta look right—and my grandfather was “Make it practical, make it work, just fix it and let’s move on. Yeah, what do you mean? It looks fine.” So they would always have these arguments: “Dad, you can’t do that—it looks like hell.” And he’s like, “What do you mean? It works, it works just fine, there’s nothing wrong, the door’s fine now.” “But the colors don’t match!” Through that I started to see those two different worlds.
AZ: Of function and aesthetics.
TF: Function and form and aesthetics, and you’re like, “Oh, wait a second, we gotta balance these things.” That was really great.
And then, on the other side, my dad, he was a head salesman at [Levi Strauss & Co.]. So he made sure that wherever, as we were growing up, he was in that division of Levi’s—boyswear, kidswear, adult-wear—depending on where we were in age. So he would always take out the whole line of clothes and then he would teach me what gabardine is, and seersucker and all the different fabrics and colors, and say, “Put this on and try this.” So we had this fashion element, because my dad had that; my mom with this house aesthetics; and my grandfather with the functionality, and those things would always be coming together in some crazy way. And then there was my love of music, which then informed a whole other area. And so just blending all of that.
AZ: And technology. I mean, you were also coming into the world as computers were coming into the world.
TF: Yeah, about ’79, ’80, I was about 10, 11. The Apple II became my world.
AZ: How did you get one?
TF: So I traded a hammer for a computer. That was a major shift—a shift that my grandfather never did; he never touched a computer. But it was very interesting because my dad, for Levi’s—because it was West Coast; its headquartered in San Francisco—they were [among] the first companies to adopt technology. So he had one of those Grid laptops. Right, and he would have a TI Silent 700, which was a paper terminal with a modem that you put a regular phone in. So I had this technology thing that also blended in here, and it made me passionate about being able to create things with my hands and with my fingers and my mind on the thing and you could put them together, so it was this hardware/software world.
AZ: Did you like school?
TF: I liked a few subjects, but in general I did not like school. I didn’t like college for the most part. No, I was thrown out of school a lot.
AZ: And how did you make it to the Valley?
TF: How did I make it to the Valley? [Laughs]
AZ: Skipping over the adolescent moment.
TF: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I had a startup company in college, and I was going to the Valley every few weeks to work with a software distributor and publisher who was taking what we were doing in Michigan and publishing it—it was educational software. And so I would go back and forth all the time, and through that I would read things like MacWEEK and Macworld, and I would read about my heroes who created the Apple II or the Mac, and I was always wondering, What are they doing now?
In one of the articles, the Mac team had gone off to do this company called General Magic. I didn’t know what it was, but it sounded really cool because it was really secretive. So I literally went over to the offices and banged on the door at 8 a.m.—I was 21 at the time—banged on the door and just said, “Let me in,” and “Are you guys hiring?” It took about four to five months of hard persistence to finally, ultimately, get a position there. I was just blown away. Blown away.
AZ: And people should know there’s this brilliant documentary that came out about a year ago about General Magic, which is really fantastic because it’s one of the most influential moments in Silicon Valley history, that very few people know about. What is General Magic?
TF: General Magic was the Mac team minus Steve [Wozniak], and the goal was to create a personal intelligent communicator. Literally the iPhone fifteen years earlier than the iPhone shipped. So it wasn’t a pocketable device, because the technology wasn’t there yet, but it was about the size of a paperback book, and it had a touch-screen interface, it had all graphics, you could do email, you could do email wirelessly, you could download games, you should shop on it, it had full phone communications as well. So it was this platform that was created, what would be beyond the Mac, and many, many of the concepts that we developed there were then ultimately moved on to the iPhone. We were just too early.
AZ: Too early, and timing is everything in technology.
TF: And the technology wasn’t really ready yet, right? We were very, very ambitious, but we saw it working, and we had learned so much from that, but yet we were still too ahead of our time.
AZ: How heartbreaking was the end of it?
TF: Well, for me, I was devastated. I was for about two, three weeks literally catatonic. Because I had put my heart and soul for four years—this was my first real thing working for a team that I incredibly respected. Eighty, hundred, hundred-and-twenty-hour weeks for four years.
AZ: Yeah, you famously had a bed in your office.
TF: Yeah. Not just me, a few of us had beds in our offices, because we just loved what we were doing with the team that we were working with. And we thought we were going to change the world and everybody convinced us, all the press was telling us we were going to change the world. And so, at 21, 22, it became my whole world. I shunned everything. I got rid of everything. I didn’t talk to anyone—all I did was work. And then to have it not work—maybe we sold four to five thousand devices in the whole world after a half a billion to three quarters of a billion dollars spent on designing and building it. It was a wake-up call.
AZ: You were sort of taken down by your parent, in a way. I mean, what was it like when the [Apple] Newton was announced?
TF: [Laughs] Well, it felt like betrayal because Apple spun us out—well, we weren’t, I wasn’t there, but it spun the project out of Apple and funded this company called General Magic, and so we believed we were going to be the next Apple, so to speak. And then when Apple decided to compete with us—they can say what they wanted to at the time, “Oh no they weren’t competing—two totally different things.” They were really competing with us. It was hard to see. Hard to watch. But, at the same time, the Newton failed, too. We were all trying to do the same thing. But there were so many lessons learned. So many bad mistakes. You couldn’t ask for a better education.
TF: Be it I was 24, 25 by the end of it.
AZ: Yeah, some of the guys experienced this in their late forties.
TF: Right, exactly, they just kind of go along their path. So it was really wonderful to actually have that because you got to do something that really mattered, but at the same time then you learned all the things about business and consumers and how to try to communicate with them and try to convince them. And when you learn those in such a dramatic fashion—
TF: Publically. Personally. Those stick with you. Stick with me today. So when working with entrepreneurs and stuff, it’s like, “Let me tell you these stories. Let me tell you why timing matters. Let me tell you why you have to scope a project a certain way and ship it and you don’t have infinite time to get something out there.” [It] was really great. And remember, this was all pre-internet, right? General Magic was also a victim of the internet. The internet came and we were doing everything kind of like more in late eighties fashion of doing computing and missed the whole internet wave, at General Magic.
AZ: Yeah, you had your heads down.
TF: Yeah, we were totally down. Because, the project, when I started, was supposed to only be a year to a year and a half when we were going to ship. It took four years.
AZ: Yeah, because the aspirations were extraordinary.
TF: Exactly, and the team, the Mac team, always wished that they would have done one more thing on the Mac, and one more thing. So they always kept going, “Well, we have the money, so let’s add one more thing and one more thing, and that was one of the big lessons learned is: Less is more, you need to ship. You need to ship in some period of time. To make sure that we get feedback from the world, and you’re never going to make anything perfect. Right? The way you learn is by shipping and then iterating.
AZ: Exactly. Which you did eighteen times? With the iPod?
TF: Yeah, eighteen different generations on the iPod.
AZ: So you leave General Magic. You’re like, “What am I going to do? Do I go back to Michigan do I stay here? What do I do?” Where do you land?
TF: Well, General Magic, actually—I wanted to save General Magic. Because I believed in it so much, but I believed that the device we were making was for consumers but consumers didn’t have the mindset, they weren’t ready for that kind of product. Wireless communications—they didn’t even know, they weren’t even doing email yet for the most part and we were going to do it wirelessly? So I said, “Let’s make a business device.” And so I designed basically what would be a business version of General Magic to do certain kinds of things. And they were like, “That’s really great, Tony, but we’re busy. We can’t do that.” And so I was mad. I was like, “What? We gotta save this company—we gotta save all this work we did.”
So I went to the various partners of General Magic, Philips being one of them, and pitched them the idea. And I had a person from the inside of Philips, who got to know me, so she and I went out and pitched Phillips, and be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. So I was 25 and the CEO of Phillips goes, “Yeah, we’ll do that device.” I was like, “What?!” I was a lowest-man-on-the-totem-pole kind of engineer there, and they were like, “Nope, and you’re gonna run it and you’re gonna create this division.” So literally [I] went to go to Phillips to go to create a division for them to make mobile computing happen—
AZ: With very little leadership skills and…
TF: Yeah, and I remember the day I got the job because I was like, “Oh, this is fun,” and I’m meeting the CEO and I’m like, yeah, it won’t happen. But it happened. And I got home—I was in this little apartment—and I woke up in a cold sweat I said, “What did I do? What did I just sign up for?”
AZ: Now I gotta do it.
TF: Now I gotta do it. And wow, that was a whole other learning experience. But I was panicked for a while. And then the first six, nine months—because you’re just an individual contributor, and you have to be a leader building a team in a big company. I had never been in a big company like that. At that point they had 375,000 people in this company. I didn’t even know what that is. But I just threw myself in it and had to do a lot of personal learning, a lot of learning about myself, learning about how to be a leader in a company, building a device and a team from scratch. And we did it.
AZ: And also trying to be a 25-year-old.
TF: And trying to be a 25-year-old, yeah. [Laughs]
AZ: And then you finally, somehow, get to Apple.
AZ: What’s that story?
TF: The story, the Apple story. So after Philips I went to go start my own company, trying to reinvent consumer electronics. So, everything at that point in the mid-nineties, late nineties was all analog—there were CDs still, but everything else was analog, it was components, it was no flatscreens yet. And I was like, “How could we revolutionize consumer electronics?” Because it was really male. You go to some pro shop and you put each piece together…. I was like, “This is just too hard.” And at Philips I also learned about, at that time, MP3s, and watched that whole thing.
AZ: Compression was just starting.
TF: Yeah, digital compressions, because people were taking the digital audio off the CDs because they weren’t encrypted—protected—and you could then just kind of play them a little bit. There was no memory, really, but you could play them back on computers. It was sort of interesting.
And so this company was all about making digital consumer electronics with a whole new retail and purchase experience. On the internet, you could configure it, or it would be configured for you, and then it would just be delivered and you could set it up. One of the key components that we were building was a little rack-mounted or a desktop-mounted CD player with a hard drive in it. So the CD player, as you put it in, it would rip the tunes and put it onto a hard drive. And then you could have a jukebox of thousands of songs. But it was in a big hard drive, a five-and-a-quarter-inch hard drive.
So we were building that and the internet crisis happened, of 2000. Nobody wanted to fund anything. Startups—the startup environment froze. Nuclear winter set in. And especially any startup that was dong hardware, they didn’t want to talk to anybody doing hardware. I was sitting there panicked, and we were changing the company, trying to get other funding. I did over eighty pitches to venture capitalists. It was just rejection after rejection. It was brutal.
So I decided to take a little time off and my friend said, “Oh, come out skiing.” So I was just trying to clear my brain [for] what was going to be next because it was clear that this company was on its last legs, because it was about eight months after that internet crunch. And, lo and behold, I get a phone call. And I’m on the ski slope in Vail. I’m getting on a chair lift—and it was a person from Apple. And he’s like, “A friend of mine told me you could consult for us.” I said, “What?” It turned out that I had lunch just before I went on this trip with a friend of mine, who I knew from General Magic, who worked there, and he knew this person at Apple, and so on and so forth. Literally because of that lunch, I told him what was going on with my company, and then he told his friend from Apple, and then I got the call. I had been working on a lot of the same things. It wasn’t the iPod in a miniform, but it was in this larger form. And then I was brought in as a consultant for the first six to eight weeks to say, “We see MP3 players out there; we think they’re all crap. What would be an Apple version of that? Could you come in and consult with us and look at that?” And that’s what I did.
AZ: And what was the culture of the company at the time?
TF: Oh, Apple? Well, Apple was—it had the iMac, but the iMac kind of went to the Mac loyalists and then it died. So, the stock was running up in 2000. When all the internet stocks were down, Apple was way up. And then, all of a sudden, it hit a wall. Nobody else was buying Macs after the Mac loyalists. So the company was in the doldrums. I think it was barely break-even from a company perspective. They weren’t winning against Windows and Microsoft. Michael Dell, from Dell Computers, said, “Oh, they should just close down Apple and give the money back to all the shareholders.” So, it was a pretty dour time around Apple. And to come in and do the iPod in this, in this kind of not-so-nice environment, with constrained resources, and everybody was fighting for their lives, we had to really prove ourselves to try to make that product happen.
AZ: How quickly did you meet Steve Jobs?
TF: I had started in the end of January—end of January or first week of February—and then the middle of March was the first time I met Steve in an Apple meeting. I had met Steve, once, twice, before at some other parties. But yeah, an Apple meeting was March 2001.
AZ: At the time, you had a huge amount of respect for him. I mean this is one of your…
TF: Oh absolutely. I had a healthy dose of incredible respect for him. But I had also heard all the stories from being at General Magic and the Mac team. So I also had tons of fear as well because I heard about the days of the Mac. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And so I was nervous as all hell going into that first meeting with Steve. But it turned out—time mellows everyone—he was very very different from what I had imagined him to be, from the stories that I was told at General Magic.
AZ: Yeah, because all of a sudden you’re working with him.
TF: Yeah, literally working together with him. He was like, “Well, I see this in the design, and more of this less of that. Can you do this? What do you think about that?” And that first meeting was really amazing, because he greenlit the project right then and there after about almost a two-hour meeting.
AZ: And then you guys worked together for a number of years.
TF: Yeah, ten years after that.
AZ: You saw a lot during that period of time. Do you think that his management style was effective? Do you think that you have to govern with an iron fist to produce results?
TF: His management style was absolutely effective. He was definitely respected, okay? When it comes to opinion-based decisions, especially when Apple was in its… it was all about computers—we were gonna go to consumer electronics—and it was his opinion that [that] was the right way forward for Apple. And there was no facts or a fact-based decision. It was like, “This is what we’re gonna do.” And you had to have that will to do it and that energy behind it that… We willed that thing into existence through the entire organization because it needed to happen.
I think it was absolutely effective, and I learned so much from him as to how to transform a business—a culture—to make things happen, when the environment around you didn’t want it to happen. Right? At the same time, you learn some things that you don’t necessarily want to do, too, right? Because you have to have a team, and the team has to be cohesive and individuals also have to be rewarded for their individual contributions.
TF: You learned a lot of things by watching him do it the right way, and you learned a few things by watching him do it the wrong way. But would I ever trade that? No. I have those same—in a different way—I have those same challenging spots, just like he had some challenging spots. We all have those. But I’d much rather have that blend than to have someone who can’t will things into existence. If you want to change the world, it is by your spirit, it’s by your intelligence, it’s by your passion that you get people to follow you and make that reality. And I don’t know of any other way to do it.
AZ: Yeah, and, I mean, your period there was the golden age of Apple. This is when the iPod was invented, the iPhone was introduced to the world. That was, sort of, the most fundamental shifts that happen from a technology company and culture.
TF: Yeah, and it changed society. We look back at 2007, and before 2007 and before the iPod, Apple was a different company and our society was very different. And to make those two huge shifts when the world said we could never do it is just very rewarding.
AZ: And while you were there you met your wife.
TF: I absolutely did. A year after I was there.
AZ: You guys were together during the period you were both at Apple.
TF: Yeah, we were there, we were together almost from the day we met each other, which was on a blind date, in the Apple buildings, we had a blind date, and the Apple—
AZ: Because no one ever left.
TF: [Laughs] We were always working, we were always working. But yeah, and then we were together and we both left at the same time as well.
AZ: How did you feel when you left Apple?
TF: How did I feel? [Pauses] Apple at that time—I can’t speak for now—was an absolutely amazing ride. But kind of like General Magic. You kind of say, “Oh, I have kind of outgrown this in a way. I’ve learned a lot of things and I think it’s time for me to get to new ground, new ways of thinking, new ways of working on different things.” We talked about eighteen generations of the iPod. How many times are you gonna turn that crank? And you have a formula and it works great. And then the iPhone—we were already on our third generation at that point, by the time I left. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go through eighteen generations now,” and you saw the release, last week, of the eleventh, the iPhone 11 or whatever it was. You’re just like, “Wait a second, do I want to get on this treadmill again?” We had a 1- and a 2-year-old, my wife and I, that we didn’t see. Because we were working so hard. So there was one, which is my personal thing, of, how am I challenging myself? And then we had our family. And these kids needed parents around that [weren’t] stressed-out all the time and always working.
AZ: And you’re also seeing so many people around you who aren’t making that choice.
TF: That’s true. That’s absolutely true. And Steve was really, really interesting when it came down to us leaving. Because I remember when we told him we were pregnant, and he was like [gasp]. It was like a big deal. We told him we were married—that was a whole other story. But when we told him we were pregnant, he was very supportive. People will say what you want about Steve in other things, but he was incredibly supportive, and he would take me and my wife on long walks and sit with each of us and talk about kids and what he learned from kids. It was really, really a wonderful experience to share with him. But when we actually said, “Oh, we have kids,” he was like, “I was wondering when you guys were going to do that. I was wondering when you were going to… I thought you were going to do it sooner.”
He had already been through that in his mind [thinking] like, “They will leave”—or at least my wife will leave, because she’ll want to be with the kids more. And then when we both did it, it was like, “Okay, I get it.” So we had clocked forward. Everything had clocked forward. Personally, our family, and it was just the right time.
AZ: And you exited the bubble. And you were out.
TF: Exited the bubble. Definitely we were out.
AZ: And then what?
TF: And then we went touring the world. So we went on a year-and-a-half tour around the world, going to different cities with our kids, spending two to four weeks—sometimes longer—in different places. To just get outside of Silicon Valley and learn about different ways of living and getting inspiration and figuring out what could possibly be next and spending time with the kids.
AZ: And then your next big innovation happened—and it’s interesting how innovation seems to come from disappointment. You were building a house and out of that came Nest.
TF: Yeah, Nest came. And Nest was really an idea that I had. Because I was building and doing stuff with my grandfather back in the day, making our things, fixing different things. And so when it came to building this house and designing it, I wanted it to be the most green, connected house. And so I started looking for different products. One thing was a thermostat, and I couldn’t find anything. So while I’m looking for those products to go in the house, we’re also traveling around the world. And I’m going to all these different houses and living in different houses, and they all have the same problems! There’s no good thermostats. None of these different household infrastructure technology products worked, or were beautiful. And I was like, “Oh, my god, this is a worldwide problem.”
Sometimes you’d go to Europe and you’re like, “Oh, they have better furniture,” because back in the nineties or the eighties it was like, we didn’t have any contemporary furniture, it was all in Europe. And then it came. So we were like, “Oh, I’m going to go over there; I’m going to find stuff.” It wasn’t there. I was like, “Wait a second.” And then I was like, “How do you build and how do you design these things?” And I was like, “Oh, I know how to do that.” So while I’m on the road and designing virtually the house and living in these houses with the same problems I’m trying to design out, I was like, “Okay, well, let’s start designing and researching the products and thinking about it.”
AZ: Right, and then it was acquired by Google for an enormous amount of money and then you re-enter a huge organization.
TF: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
AZ: And I don’t know how much you want to talk about that, but I’m sure leaving that felt good.
TF: Oh, oh, leaving another large organization? Absolutely. It was, it was—freedom. It was freedom again to design. I loved the team that we had built at Nest; I loved the culture we had built at Nest. It was hard-charging, it was make it happen, team spirit, go for it. And in any organization, whether it’s Apple, or Phillips, or Google, or anything that any of the other ones I see, there’s one which is the work and then there’s all the other ancillary stuff that goes with the work which is organizational dysfunction. And to have to step into it again—it’s like, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, why am I doing that again?
AZ: You didn’t need the money. You had young kids. There was anything you could do. So why were you there?
TF: I had gone because I wanted to take the vision bigger. We were done. We were by no means just getting started. But I had been in the Valley twenty-five years at that point, twenty-four years. And I saw people’s egos—they said we’re gonna topple this large company, we’re going to take over. And I know how hard it was to fulfill the vision that we wanted to build at Nest. It was a big, big vision. And to go the distance was going to be very, very hard. And I did not want to lose that because we had two hundred people at that point, and families that I and my co-founder we responsible for. And they had joined us along the trip, and we were that fast-rising star—we were doing all that. And sometimes you have to put your own issues aside and you have to say, “I have to do what’s best for the vision, I have to do what’s best for the teams.” And to make sure that this lives on.
TF: I also know that when big companies decide to get on your turf, they can really spoil things for you. When you’re the biggest company on a small hill, and then the big guys show up, you don’t want that. You want to change the landscape before they change it on you.
TF: And so I wanted to be the first mover in changing the landscape.
TF: And that was the other thing.
TF: So all of those things came together to say now is the right time.
TF: Because we could have been at it, these other guys came in, and then it could have been gone. I saw it too many times.
AZ: Right, and that was kind of the end of the Valley for you.
TF: That was the end, yeah.
AZ: And before we move on, I just want to ask you: In this industry obsessed with speed, you seem to have done things at your own pace. And you seem to really respond well to this idea of slowing down and observing the underlying assumptions that are happening surrounding something. At that time, were you feeling like you didn’t have the time to really make the moves? Were you feeling like there were pressures on your time that were making you make decisions that you didn’t necessarily want to be making? Or did you just feel like you wanted to slow it all down all together?
TF: Just after the Google experience and the Nest experience, did I feel…?
TF: When the disaster happened, I went away for three weeks to the desert to go ponder, to think, to get clear again. When I was at Philips, I took two sabbaticals, basically six to eight weeks each, one to Latin America, or twelve weeks, Latin America and the Middle East, with just me and a backpack. And I found those to be incredible experiences to right your brain, to get outside of it, to gain perspective and go, “Okay, how do I really want to take the next steps?” Because, as you say, things move really fast. And you are running from fire to fire, and you’re trying to beat the competition or whatever, and you lose all grounding at some points, and so then we did it at Apple, we took the time off at Apple.
TF: So, to me, I was like, I had learned from those experiences, “Okay, it’s time to just—psht.”
TF: Everybody worries about jumping to the next lily pad. Everybody worries about like, “Oh, if I don’t have a job now, I’m not going to get one.” People are going to say, “Well, what did you do for those six months? Why didn’t you go right to work?” Or your family goes, “Well, what are you going to do for money for the next six months?” All of these external fears come in, and it feels like society is pushing that you have to leap to the next thing. Some of it is in your mind, and some of it is external. If you take that time and you give yourself that buffer, you’ll find that usually those are fabricated, and you can very easily push way all the other stuff that people are coming at you with, and you can make much better decisions.
I’ve had lots of people who call me who worked for me, and they’re in the place that I was. Like, “Oh, I’m quitting, I can’t take it anymore, or time’s up here.” And, I’m like, “Go get bored. Take six months. Get bored. Literally go do all the things you wished you would have done for the last five years when you were at that company working like crazy. Go do those things.”
AZ: Or do nothing.
TF: Go take that trip. Go whatever. Go get incredibly bored or do nothing. Don’t do what you have to do for work. Go do other things. Gain perspective, and then you come back with fresh ideas. And you can almost like reboot yourself. Version 2.0. Version 3.0.
AZ: Which you’ve done multiple times in your life.
TF: Trying. Keep trying.
AZ: You decide to move to Paris, and then you decide to open Future Shape.
AZ: Tell me a little about Future Shape and what you’re most excited about right, now that you’re working on there.
TF: Future Shape is what we call [an] advisory and investment firm. But really, for us, it’s—I call ourselves “mentors with money.” So we are investors in startup companies around the world, doing deep technology startups, things that are really really hard [that] most VCs would never fund. They’re not software-based, they’re not consumer-based, they’re things that can disrupt the world in the right way to make societies better, communities better, our environment better. So we want to support those entrepreneurs who are trying to do hard things. And try to bring our network, not just money, but bring our network, our experience to help them the way I was helped to get to where I am today: through mentors.
I think it’s time to give back, and put your money where your mouth is, help these people, and try to change the world. So I got to do it a few times, luckily, and successfully. So let’s try to do that, but on a scale of hundreds of companies, not just one company that I would do myself. So that we cake take this, what I think is an art, right, a true art form, and instill that and help to train people. Learn by doing, so that we can have more artists out there.
TF: Just think about this: How many people really worked closely with Steve [Jobs] at Apple? Or the Macintosh team? Or some of these world-changing things? If you have that experience, I think it’s almost a requirement that you go and help to spread that knowledge around. Because that’s what we have to do as artists, or it will die.
TF: And so I want to, and our team wants to, do that for so many things. And not just consumer electronics; we’re doing it in biotech, med-tech, agriculture technology, food technology, finance technology, all the places where the tools and things that we’ve created are now colliding with industries that are totally transforming and will transform because of the technology.
AZ: And you’re continuing to be able to fuse your own personal curiosities and interests into your investments—
TF: Oh yeah.
AZ: Impossible Foods, you’re working on scooters that are electric-powered in Asia. You’re doing all these things that are actually just ways that you, in real terms, want to change the world. A lot of people are talking about changing the world. Very few people have the ability and know-how to actually affect these industries. I mean, look at what’s happening with Impossible Foods—Burger King.
TF: Yeah, Burger King! White Castle!
AZ: It’s amazing.
TF: It’s amazing, the team’s amazing. I have to give them credit. I was there in the early days, but that’s really them doing it. They’re really, really good.
AZ: Well, at this point that’s your role with these companies. I mean how many of these companies are you actually hands-on doing design and engineering and—
TF: Oh, very much. It’s working with the CEO to help them see what they need to do and letting them know. It’s not about actually doing it. In a few cases, we do, but most of the time it’s about helping to give them the confidence so that they can make the decisions. A lot of—sometimes they get analysis paralysis, sometimes they have a blind spot in the product or in the business or in something. And so, what we’re trying to do is just help them and augment them so that they can be successful.
So that’s really rewarding. You have kids, and when they take that next step and you’re there watching them and you see it and you feel so proud. And you just help them and nudge them and say, “No, do more of that,” give them a little bit more risk, so they learn. That’s what we do. That’s what we do with all these entrepreneurs and businesses. We don’t wanna take credit for what they do. We just wanna help push them and make sure that the vision that they have can be fulfilled, and do it with as minimum disruption as possible.
AZ: What’s amazing is that you now have this outside perspective, looking from Paris, Bali, wherever you’re living now, back at the Valley. You have great friends there, you have a strong history there, but you were also one of the first people to come out to speak up against what was happening, especially with screen addiction and some of the social issues that you’ve taken on and held these people to task. Has it been sad for you to see how much the Valley has changed? Do you feel a certain responsibility to keep them in check in a way?
TF: Well, I don’t think of myself as a policeman or anything like that.
AZ: Not in that way, but—
TF: But I think that, look, when you create something or help to create it, and things are going awry, you need to step in and state what it is. Because a lot of people are still in the system and they have to get—they have to make ends meet, and they can’t necessarily speak up for what’s going on, they might feel it, they might talk about it at the dinner table or their friends in confidence, but they’re not going to go out and say it.
TF: And so—
AZ: I mean, especially when NDAs run the Valley.
TF: Oh, NDAs and relationships and everything else, but I just remember—and this was a thing that I meant for my mentors, which was: When there’s something going on, and it’s not right, stand up and say it. But make sure you do it in a constructive way. Make sure that you’ve talked to the people before you say it, to see if you can get it resolved. Try to come to terms, and if you can’t, then just go all out and just say what you mean. Offer good solutions—not just complaining—and try to reframe it so that people can see it and hopefully fix it.
You get to that point in your career where you gotta do those things. Especially when it’s something that’s important about society, family, community, and it’s something that you were involved in building initially. Sure, I could be a critic on everybody’s products, and you could go off and be a pundit—yeah, whatever. When it’s really a social-impact thing, you need to speak up—or an environmental [thing]—you need to speak up and you need to try to make change. If you’re not on the inside doing it, and you should be on the inside, if you are on the inside, speaking up about it, as much as you can. But when you’re on the outside and you have credibility and some kind of relationship to the thing, you need really to say, “Come on guys, let’s do what’s right. Let’s really understand what’s going on. It’s not about the dollar; it’s not about this stuff.” Some of my personal relationships were affected by doing that, but I’m like, “Guys, this isn’t personal.”
TF: This isn’t personal; this is all about doing the right thing. And when you’re on the side of that and you think you’re right and you talk to other people and they go, “Yeah, thank you for saying it” you go, “Okay, I’m going to keep doing it” and I might get scars on my back and people might not like it, but you gotta speak up.
AZ: But Silicon Valley has gone unchecked for a long time, and there is a hubristic approach to business and to the rest of society that has developed out there, and we need a conversation about it and people aren’t really having it, because it’s not institutionally focused. It’s not, your bad—it’s a sort of cultural problem out there.
TF: Yeah, the valley has changed a lot since I got there in ’91.
TF: Okay. I watched the craziness of the internet of 2000, right, and we’re like, “Oh, my god, where did all these people come from?” and they’re all talking about this and went money crazy, and then it fell apart and the Valley went back to being the Valley, but then through multiple things through the early 2000s and then the social mobile with the iPhone and all the other stuff, it got really crazy, money flowing and people not thinking straight. They’re like, “Oh, we’re just a tech platform, we don’t really affect society—society just lives on our platform.” You have to you have to understand that you are affecting societies; people are learning from this. This might be one of their only ways of getting information.
I think there were two really big things. One was that technology got adopted so rapidly, and the other one is many of these leaders, they were like—I was, when I was 24 or 25—and they have, they literally had these technologies that could be used for mass good or mass bad, and they’re like, “They’re just technologies” and “I’m just trying to do the right thing,” and they’re, like, naïve and innocent and “We’re just changing the world and it’s gonna be all good.” It’s until they actually had kids and families and they understood like, “Oh, my god, my kids are seeing this stuff,” then they start getting some conscience. But the problem is, the cat’s already out of thee bag. And now it’s like, “We gotta roll it back.”
I think if the leaders of those companies actually had their own kids, and they actually saw the realities, and the technology grew a little bit more slowly, so we could watch some of this stuff—it literally exploded in a year and half, two years, and it was just like it was everywhere.
AZ: The tyranny of speed.
TF: And you’re just like, “Oh, my god, what did we unleash?” And to put it back in—I bet you we would make a lot of different decisions than we did. Some of these leaders would.
AZ: Do you think it’s savable? In its current form?
TF: You gotta have hope. A lot of times, cultures that are built and platforms that are built, it’s easier to build new ones than it is to try to change the ones that are there. You’re gonna have to let those die out. And people are going to learn that “No, I don’t want this, I want this instead.” And they’ll have a choice as opposed to trying to make something that morphs something into where it is today into this other thing. I think it is going to be a generational thing and it’ll pass. We’ll pass by it, and there’ll be a new set with new brands and people like I like that more.
I saw a very interesting research article about a month ago, and it was all about companies trying to do right by the environment. And they said consumers trusted new brands who wanted to do the right thing for the environment [more] than older brands who had been doing the same thing for years and then all of a sudden said they had this one product line that’s new, environmentally friendly or whatever. Customers would much rather go to a new brand doing it the right way than try to trust an old brand who was doing it the wrong way, and they’re now saying they’re doing it the right way. So I think that’s what’s going to be it, not just environmental issues but all of these social and technology platform/media things. I think we’re all going to see a trend away to something else as opposed to trying to fix what’s there.
AZ: Something much more humanistic. Something that honors who we are biologically.
TF: And that states its principles upfront of what it is.
TF: I just remember that Steve, when we had the iTunes media store and people were like, “We should have any kind of content we want on it,” and he was like, “Absolutely not. Of course we could have porn, and we could make money with that. But is that what you want for your kids? Do you want to say, when your kids ask, you say ‘Don’t watch porn,’ yet you’re selling it. Is that gonna be the right thing? You’re going to be a hypocrite?” He’s like, “You have to put your ethics, morals, social responsibility into the things that you build because of the world that you want to leave for your kids and their generation. So you need to make a this is good and [this is] bad’ statement, just like how you have to train your kids: this is right; this is wrong. We need to have that in our platforms, in our media, and we need to state that upfront.”
TF: When people sign up, as opposed to this generic thing and you can do whatever you want. You can’t go into a restaurant and say whatever you want, and troll people and stuff like that—people will kick you out. Those are private spaces. Well, technology—our social platforms—can be private spaces, too. And they can be policed and controlled and done right if the creators so choose to do so and want to put their stamp of “This is what we believe this online society should be like” and kick people off.
AZ: Well hopefully the work you’re doing at Future Shape and everywhere else is going to create opportunities for leaders that are like that.
TF: We hope, we hope.
AZ: Thank you for coming on today.
TF: Thank you so much.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Sept. 12, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.