Before Tony Fadell cofounded Nest—the smart-home startup, now part of Alphabet, which he’s leaving—he was best known as the father of the iPod. Before that, he wasn’t well known at all. His biggest gig: heading development of Philips’ Velo and Nino palmtop computers, which got good reviews but didn’t go much of anywhere.
Even then, though, anyone who paid attention to Fadell knew he was a rising star. In 1998, in an article about how twentysomethings and fortysomethings could collaborate more effectively, Fast Company profiled the 29-year-old engineer/entrepreneur:
The wonder is that Fadell is at Philips at all. He is a poster child for youthful exuberance and break-the-rules innovation. Ask Fadell where he’d be if he lived in the era before computers, and he responds, “In jail.” In high school he was a phone phreaker. By the time he graduated from college, he’d helped start four companies.
At age 22, fresh out of the University of Michigan, Fadell signed on with General Magic. It was, at the time, one of the most glamorous startups in Silicon Valley. Fadell began as a lowly diagnostic software engineer and rose to the exalted position of lead systems architect. He routinely worked 100-hour weeks. “I knew nothing about anything else in the world,” he says.
Fadell already had a reputation for being excitable in a way that some people found intimidating, a quality which would continue to dog him:
“I’ve learned to control my emotions,” Fadell says. “It’s so easy for people to misunderstand – even when the emotions are positive. When I get excited, I get loud. It’s amazing how many people think, ‘Tony is yelling,’ as opposed to, ‘Tony is having a fun conversation.'”
And even though the iPod was still three years away, one of Fadell’s colleagues was already predicting, correctly, that he would become a tech titan:
I’ve seen a lot of change in him. By the time he’s 35, he’ll have had so much experience organizing companies and managing people that he’ll be one of the leaders of Silicon Valley.