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Tony Fadell On Dealing With Tech Celebrity

Like many techies, the Nest founder never expected to find himself in the spotlight. Here he reflects on advice for dealing with unexpected fame.

Not long ago the average American would be hard pressed to name a tech leader whose name didn’t end in “Jobs” or “Gates.”

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A generation later, countless tech executives walk red carpets, are featured on magazine covers, are interviewed on prime time television and enjoy much of the same admiration, as well as scrutiny, as any other celebrity.

[Photo: Wikipedia]
In early June a number of these technology celebrities shared the same stage as public figures in film, television, sport, and music at the Brilliant Minds conference in Stockholm, Sweden. There tech royalty like investor Chris Sacca, inventor Tony Fadell, and Zynga cofounder Mark Pincus gave addresses between talks from celebrities like Pharrell Williams, Rashida Jones, and Mario Batali.

“The tech business in the ’80s, that was Revenge of the Nerds,” says Fadell, who was credited as one of the inventors of the iPod and iPhone before founding Nest Labs in 2010, which he sold to Google in 2014. “We were geeks, we were looked down upon.”

Fadell tells Fast Company that he never imagined a career in the tech industry would turn him and his contemporaries into household names, adding that he responded with shock the first time he was asked to walk a red carpet. “I was like, ‘are you kidding me?’ It seemed crazy,” he says.

Fadell has many concerns for an industry still adjusting its eyes to the spotlight, and advice for up-and-coming techies who might find themselves in a role they weren’t prepared for.

There Are No Kardashians In Tech

Being famous for the sake of being famous may be a reality for a lucky few in today’s pop culture, but nobody achieves celebrity status in the tech industry without first delivering the goods, warns Fadell.

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“You’re a zero, then you become a hero, but if you don’t deliver that community throws you out,” he says. Fadell adds that hot new startups often become the talk of the town when its founders raise an impressive amount of money. Suddenly they’re rubbing shoulders with other tech royalty, getting a taste for how the industry’s most successful live, forgetting that they still have a business to build. “There are a lot of young founders that are almost like child actors that got famous too early,” he says.

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

When public interest in the technology industry began to bloom a certain mythology blossomed with it, one that Fadell fears newcomers may believe represents reality.
“It’s almost like learning how to have sex by watching porn,” he says. “When they read it through the media, now that it’s been so sensationalized, they think this is how you create a startup company.”

Fadell explains that when people regularly see tech executives on keynote stages, magazine covers, and red carpets they begin to imagine that’s what starting a technology company looks like.

“You really have to understand what it takes to build a company, and it comes at the other side of success,” he says. “Celebrity is the other side, but people get into it now because they want that [celebrity].”

Stay Focused On Your Product

In order to avoid getting sucked into the gravitational pull of that mythology Fadell believes it takes a strong support team to stay focused. He explains that, like in other industries, there’s a certain amount of “fake it ’till you make it” in tech, but it’s important for tech founders not to fake themselves out.

“They’re creating this story to get more funders around them to raise the valuations when there’s not enough fundamentals to drive the business, and then it all unravels,” he says. “[The attention] can be positive or negative, just like any drug; you need to have good people around you and a good environment, not just funders who are trying to chase the dollar.”

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Use The Attention To Your Advantage

While there is the potential for a more public profile to serve as a distraction from the core business Fadell believes that founders would be wise to acknowledge the potential advantages it can provide, if used properly.

“Remember you are not a celebrity like a movie star, it’s not about being in the public eye because that’s what drives your business,” he says. “It’s about being in the public eye to help grow your business. ”

Fadell adds that it’s important to show restraint, advising founders to be selective with their public appearances.

“You should not be going public with all kinds of information, you should not be celebrating when you raise money,” he says. “You should only use the press sparingly, and only to do something to drive your business.”

Remember Who You Are

Fadell’s final piece of advice to those in the tech industry that are starting to get some notice is to avoid taking other people’s opinions to heart.

“Don’t read anything about yourself, don’t watch anything about yourself, don’t do anything like that because you can get lost with everybody analyzing you, and then you start to self-modify and self-edit,” he says.

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Fadell explains that there needs to be a clear separation between a tech star’s public persona and their genuine self. “Don’t lose the person you are because you read what others say and modify who you are based on other people’s hyper-analyses of you,” he says.

About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.

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