Valley Voice
Talking German with Nest’s Tony Fadell

Tony Fadell, a regular guy from Michigan became the father of the iPod and the co-founder of Nest. Here’s what you can learn from him about success in Silicon Valley.
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What most people don’t know about me is that I started doing interviews when I was little. I began talking earlier than other children and asked all these annoying questions, a bad habit my friends still mock today. And when my play-buddies did not reply because the poor kids did not know what the hell to say, I used to bite them into the nose.

I don’t do that anymore. But I still think about it sometimes when people give me scripted answers or talk “Californian” to me. That means they say the opposite of what they actually mean. Maybe it’s because they all do Yoga here. Everything is twisted.

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Germans on the other hand love to tell people their opinions all the time – even if nobody wants to know. My Californian friends make fun of me regularly. Luckily they don’t know about the biting.

Sometimes though I meet somebody who understands the “German” way of conversation. Like Tony Fadell, father of the iPod and co-founder of Nest. The first time we sat down after his company, the maker of smart thermostats and smoke detectors, was acquired by Google for 3.2 billion dollars in January 2014. Last week we met again.

It was during the Silicon Valley Visionary Awards, a VIP event, hosted by SVForum, one of the oldest non-profit organizations in tech, in an exclusive mansion close to San Francisco. Fadell was one of this year’s honored tech visionaries, joining the illustrious ranks of Microsoft founder Bill Gates or Tesla’s Elon Musk.

I liked the way he talked on stage about how his career started, when he was just a twentysomething from Michigan, “with a lot more hair”, and drove away from his parents, without really knowing what he was doing. Most entrepreneurs I meet in the Valley try to glorify their history after they become popular. But not Fadell. “I just knew that I had to come to the heart of where everything was changing and that was right here.”

Fadell does not take success for granted. In the early 2000s when he was working at Apple, the company struggled all the time. The iPod didn’t take off the first year, it didn’t take off the second year, the team had to wait three painful years. That changed his perspective. “Looking back now we made history”, says Fadell and adds, in a very “German” manner to speak: “But back then everyone just wanted to close doors.”

Before the event we occasionally ran into each other on the terrace. “Are you following me?” Fadell asked with a grin on his face. That was funny indeed. Just the day before we talked about the company’s new security camera “Nest Cam” at a gallery in San Francisco.

The Lebanese American designer was in a good mood, leaning back in the sofa. His green-brown eyes sparkled when he was talking about his vision of the Internet of Things. “Someday in the not so far future, we will live in a smart home that we are able to monitor with our smartphones, even from afar.”

But what about all the people fearing that Google will watch them now through “Nest Cam”, since Nest got acquired by them? “I installed a camera in my gym, so everybody can watch me doing Yoga.” That was a joke of course. I answered the “German” way: “Yoga is boring.” We laughed, but the conversation turned serious again. “All data remains on our servers”, says Fadell.

The designer is aware of the fact that the success of this company will largely depend on users' trust, especially with Europeans and Germans known to be particularly sensitive to privacy issues. If Fadell continues to be so honest and speak “German” about his work, I’m sure he will succeed.

Es gibt auch eine deutsche Version dieser Kolumne.

Immer Dienstags schreibt Britta Weddeling, Korrespondentin für die Themen Internet und Netzwirtschaft des Handelsblatts im Silicon Valley, über die neusten Trends und kleinen Kuriositäten im Tal der Nerds.

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