What could the founder of Nest (and designer of the original iPod) have in common with Oscar-winning actor and musician Jared Leto? A lot, actually. For one thing, Leto was an early investor in Nest and has made a host of other savvy bets on startups (he also owns two music-business companies, VyRT and Adventures in Wonderland). But it goes deeper than that: Both spend a lot of time thinking about how to approach the creative process. In an interview with Fast Company’s Max Chafkin, the friends share thoughts on how they innovate and collaborate, both with each other and in their separate endeavors.
Fast Company: Jared, you have a lot of investments. Besides Nest, there’s Slack, Uber, Airbnb, Blue Bottle. It’s basically every hot company in Silicon Valley right now. I’m curious how you got into the position to be in all these deals. When Tony says, “I need a really good investor who is connected to the entertainment world,” why is it you instead of somebody else?
Jared Leto: That’s a good question. “I don’t know” is the answer.
Tony Fadell: I can answer it. It’s by reputation. There are certain investors who will drive you nuts and not have any input. They’re always like, “When am I going to get my money?” You [Jared] are patient, you’re thoughtful, and you say, “How can I help?”
JL: As soon as you start a band, you in some ways have a startup. You’re a few guys in a garage, usually around a computer. I remember the early days of Pro Tools. You were using software to make something—the combination of technology and creativity, which is basically the same thing Tony
does and a lot of my other friends do in tech. There’s a lot of common ground there. We’re both creative problem solvers. It’s been something that has changed my life: technology and the community. It has inspired me, and I love it. And I think Tony is right: The companies that I have worked with, I have really leaned in and participated. If they don’t want me to, I’m more than happy to stay out of their business. But being an artist, understanding artists, understanding audiences, and then also being entrepreneurial, I think gives me a vantage point that’s unique.
FC: You guys have both had really interesting careers that have taken turns. Jared, a few years back you basically stopped being in movies, stopped doing this thing that had made you famous and successful. Was that a hard decision to make?
JL: I think it was about focus. I knew that I needed to commit everything to music at that point in my life. I’d been making music longer than I had been acting, but at that time it was a very challenging thing to do for a lot of different reasons, so I knew I needed that energy and that focus and that commitment. Commitment means sacrifice. I just charged ahead and did what I had to do.
FC: Tony, it’s kind of the same thing with you, because you had this amazing career at Apple and then you turn and make a thermostat.
JL: If you can make a thermostat sexy, my God, Tony.
TF: No, seriously, my wife, the first time I gave her the pitch, she goes, “What? The iPod guy making a thermostat? This makes no sense whatsoever. Go do some more stuff in media, go do some more cool stuff.” I’m like, “No, this is cool. We can make it cool. It’s about looking at the world in a different way and applying all the design techniques to mundane objects.”
FC: When you look back on that time when you both made the jump, was it useful to have a period of relative quiet?
TF: [I was] traveling around the world for a year and a half. We were in Spain and France and going to all of these museums and exhibitions and seeing Picasso’s Green Period, Picasso’s Blue Period. All these artists would take a year or two off and gather their thoughts and then find a new vector that they could go off in. It was very inspiring to me. I was like, Wait a second, I’m in that phase right now. I had to pull back and get out of Silicon Valley to gain perspective and see the world in a different way—to then reenter it to do Nest. It was really cathartic.
JL: I rock climb, and there is an expression: You can only climb as hard as you rest. I think that’s true for creativity. But rest doesn’t have to be going on vacation. Rest for me could be spending time with people like Tony or working on some other entrepreneurial pursuit away from music, away from film. It’s important to take time, like Tony is saying, to let certain parts of your life breathe a bit.
FC: How do you guys manage to balance everything? You have so much going on.
JL: I love what I do. Most of what I do. And I love to work. I have learned how to use my time very, very, very well. And that’s important, because I don’t like what comes along with not using your time well, which is stress and anxiety and not accomplishing dreams. That’s a pretty big price to pay. So I
like to be productive. It seems like the more that I accomplish, the more that I want to accomplish, which is a funny thing.
TF: You get hooked. It’s like a drug. You’ve got to say no to a lot of things. You have to self-edit. You have to figure out your time. I have to engineer my calendar every day and every week. What am I going to do, what am I not going to do? And leave some open space for thinking as well. Don’t just let life control your schedule. You have to control it, and you have to say no a lot of times.
FC: Jared, is there anything from the entertainment world that has helped you as you’ve looked at tech deals and the entrepreneurial part?
JL: I think it’s all the same thing, really. You look at a script, you meet a director, you’re basically looking at a business proposal and a team and an entrepreneur. You’re betting on teams. I have been very fortunate to work with directors like [Darren] Aronofsky and David Fincher and these incredible people. They’re like the CEOs, the founders of these films. It’s very similar. You learn a lot from that.